Behind Closed Doors
WHEN THE PRESIDENT of Rutgers University was on the hospital after suffering a heart attack the National Academy of Science (NAS) reportedly sent him a telegram saying. "The executive committee wishes you a speedy and healthy recovery--by a vote of 10 to eight.
Petty infighting and squabbling often develop when academics get together. It is therefore quite noteworthy that a panel of 19 leading scientists and University officials--meeting under the auspices of the NAS--recently gave examinations approach to a report on Scientific Communication and National Security. The panel was established in response to the leaders government its creasing tendency to champ down on the flow of technical information under the guise of "security concerns." The group concluded that "the country's long-team national security is best projected through the continued vitality and achievements of its economic technical scientific and intellectual communities."
The report demonstrates that more than at any other time in living memory, scientists fear losing the freedom deemed necessary for that vitality, and they are willing to put aside internal divisions to form a united front against such threats.
Since World War I when scientists first significantly assisted with The development of weapons a decorate government academic relationship has existed. The researchers have insisted all along that free and open exchange with colleagues on all nationalities remains essential for technological progress. National security officials, 'who have often funded such work, have thought of foreign scientists less as colleagues than as agents for often hostile and imperialistic countries. These administrators often favored a withholding of findings lest they and the enemy.
In the early years of this intellectual bureaucratic alliance, strict limitations were the rule. But after the Korean war, restrictions loosened steadily and significantly. In the years since there have been a few publicized instances of surprise information suppression. But when President Reagan came into office, he reestablished a policy that gave the upper hand to "national security" worries for the first time in decades.
IN FEBRUARY. Reagan proposed an Executive Order. No longer, it declared, would harm to national security have to be "identifiable" for research to be kept secret It also said that research already published or declassified could be reclassified, eliminating time limits and weakening requirements for mandatory review. Congressional hearings on the subject were held in March, and according to Science, "witness after witness said the order would reverse a 30-year trend, begun in the Eisenhower Administration, to slow the massive growth of classified information in government files."
The increased use of federal authority, however, seems more chilling. Since January 1981, several foreign scholars--especially from China and Eastern bloc-countries--have been disinviled from scheduled visits to American universities because government officials tried to dictate the labs they could enter and the experiments they could observe. In May's "Chinese luggage scandal," federal agents pulled five Chinese professors and students off their planes just before leaving the country. The agents then confiscated books and notes the academics wished to take home.
Over the past two years, the theory and practice of government agencies in this area, though contradictory, remains unpublicized. Much has been made of the glaring fact that while preaching against the evils of excessive spending. Reagan has run up the biggest deficits ever in the history of the United States. The cause, of course, has been his obsession with the nation's defense, and the burgeoning allocations for arms.
But paranoia about the Soviet Union overrides other Administration goals as well, often with deleterious effects. By impeding the exchange of discoveries, the government may channel hundreds of lab hours and millions of dollars into duplicative research.
The NAS report states unequivocally that "the best way to ensure long-term national security lies in a strategy of security by accomplishment, and that an essential ingredient of technological accomplishment is open and free scientific communication." The NAS panelists conclude that risk is involved with openness, yet they maintain that "risk is acceptable...because American industrial and military institutions have the capacity to develop new technology with a speed that will continue to give the United States a differential advantage over its military adversaries."
Furthermore, the academic and psychological losses incurred when a Soviet scientist is turned away at the laboratory, or when an American scientist is prevented from speaking at a symposium, weigh against problematic benefits. It is unclear, for one thing, to how much technical information Americans have exclusive access. As it became ridiculously clear during the recent Soviet pipeline affair, the Europeans can match the United States in many areas. And they seemed much less inclined to keep their prowess secret.
In addition, unless the government prevents discoveries from circulating among American scientists as well, the findings will probably reach Moscow or Peking eventually. A Chinese physicist may not hear his American counterpart present a paper at a convention, but he can surely read about it when it appears in a scientific journal.
Although it adheres to the principles of open communication, the NAS report nevertheless argues that some limits should be placed on scientific exchange. In some cases, the NAS recommendations go beyond what many scientists would agree to under normal circumstances. But because these scholars feel these are not normal times, they feel concessions must be made, in the hope of preventing more drastic limitations.
The government's policy will be finalized in the coming months. Undoubtedly, though, some of the freedoms traditionally accorded scientists will be revoked. It seems ironic for an administration that seeks to protect individuals and businesses from government regulations to advocate certain restrictions with unprecedented vigor.