Sept. 11 Research Limits Draw Fire

Harvard, MIT panelists decry federal rules

MIT’s president, a Harvard dean and a former military leader jointly criticized government restrictions on academic research tightened in the wake of Sept. 11 at a panel called “The State v. The Academy” held at the ARCO Forum Friday evening.

The three panelists—MIT President Charles M. Vest, Harvard School of Public Health Dean Barry R. Bloom and former Secretary of the Air Force Sheila E. Widnall—said they fear that new regulations on research projects and scholarly publications will stymie important progress across the scientific community.

Academic research vital to the safety and development of the nation can only take place in a culture of free intellectual exchange, they maintained.

“What a university like Harvard or a university like MIT does is fundamentally in the public interest,” said Widnall, who after leaving the Air Force became institute professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. “The essence of the scientific method is openness.”

MIT is taking a leadership role in identifying and publicly confronting broad concerns about government interference with the academy.

Widnall chaired MIT’s Ad Hoc Faculty Committee on Access to and Disclosure of Scientific Information last year, which issued a report examining the relationship between government restrictions and open research—the only report of its sort in the nation, to her knowledge.

And Vest said “the balance between security and openness in research and education” was the subject for his annual report last year.

At Friday night’s panel, Vest spoke on a variety of issues that have arisen between national security priorities and the responsibilities of a research university, ranging from foreign students’ recent problems securing visas to government restrictions on certain research projects.

Vest, who formerly served as chair of the Association of American Universities and is presently on the U.S. President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology, emphasized the value of homeland security.

But he said he doubts that regulation of academic research will quash terrorist threats.

He presented research restrictions as one facet of recent efforts to monitor and control possible foreign treachery within the nation’s universities.

MIT has not only begun to feel the brunt of governmental efforts to monitor certain projects, he said. It has also worked extensively over the past year to manage visa delays and new, more stringent registration requirements that foreign students across the nation have faced.

“I believe that restriction is rarely advisable, and certainly rarely feasible, in this environment,” Vest said. “Restrictions on our teaching and where our students come from are unlikely to counter [national security] concerns.”

Bloom, an expert in infectious diseases, said that the sophistication and innovation of research published in prestigious academic journals would make it virtually valueless to terrorists, who value “elegant simplicity” and favor materials easily attained.

Restriction of biological research and publication, he said, would serve no security benefits.

“It’s creating ignorance among the greatest universities and the brightest students,” he said. “We have to create a culture of science where no one wants to misuse it.”

Such a culture, he said, depends on the free communication of innovative work among experts.

The three scientists comprising Friday’s panel all indicated they were prepared to work within present governmental requirements. But they emphasized that state infringement on academic freedom should diminish, not increase, in the future.

Keeping an amicable relationship between academia and the government will be vital over the next uncertain years, said Director of the Kennedy School’s Program on Science, Technology, and Public Policy John P. Holdren, who moderated the discussion.

“If ever we find ourselves in a situation where the academy and state are in head-on conflict,” he remarked, “we’re in deep trouble.”

‘A Slippery Slope’

The debate over security and openness in scientific research has been longstanding, Vest said.

“We might be having this discussion even absent what happened on Sept. 11, 2001,” he said.

Nonetheless, the national tragedy of more than a year ago increased concern that the physical and intellectual resources of a research community could be turned against the nation.

In addition to requiring universities to register their samples of certain biological agents, the government has made increasing efforts to study the backgrounds of researchers working on certain projects, sometimes barring certain individuals from participation.

“We should not have to make distinctions between foreign and domestic students, once enrolled in our universities,” Vest said.

MIT will comply with recent governmental restrictions as much as is required, Vest maintained. But constraints established in the name of national security could initiate a “slippery slope” effect, he warned, severely compromising academic freedom at the nation’s top research institutions.

“I’m worried that this is the sort of thing that could easily cascade,” he said.

Both Vest and Bloom cited the recent decision of 32 prestigious scientific journals’ to self-censor their published material in light of national security concerns as lamentable, but preferable to other practical alternatives.

“If we don’t establish regulations,” Bloom said, “the government will. And they know less about the science than we do.”

MIT gained public attention this fall when it refused a $400,000 computer science grant from the National Security Agency because the grant would have required the Institute to provide information about foreign researchers working on the unclassified project.

While the NSA felt it was acting in the interests of national security, the agency’s scrutiny made the project fruitless for everyone, Widnall said.

“The work will not be done at MIT,” she remarked. “Is that in the interest of national security? I don’t think so.”

Much of the controversy between government and researchers centers on unclear notions of which research projects could endanger the country when published. Governmental officials have recently begun referring to some work as “sensitive”—neither fully classified nor safe for complete disclosure.

But Widnall said she urges colleagues not to “buy into” this new term, which has not been defined clearly and threatens to mitigate valuable research from being adequately pursued and published.

Widnall, who was recently appointed to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, testified before Congress this fall on her distrust of intermediate research classifications.

Vest agreed with her position.

“Whenever possible, we should draw distinct boundaries,” he said. “Basic research should be open, and scientific research should be either classified or unclassified.”

Even research that must be kept classified for the safe development of technology should be released publicly as soon as it has served its original purpose to foster diverse innovation, according to Widnall.

“You can’t protect classified research forever,” she said.

Channels of Communication

Many of the panelists’ frustrations stemmed from stifled communication, both within the governmental community and between academia and the state.

Bloom emphasized that disease researchers who cannot pursue their work and publish their results freely risk inhibiting patterns of scientific progress as a whole.

Many of the most important discoveries about previously incurable diseases and conditions came about as the biological community pondered and explored the published results of one study, she said.

And while federal grants have made several facets of study, such as AIDS research, possible, Bloom said, governmental support for biological science—and dialogue with its experts—is comparatively weak.

Researchers’ professional mobility, moreover, depends largely on their publication histories. The panelists agreed that publication restrictions would likely impede the flow of minds from university to university that allows for the development and dissemination of innovative ideas.

While she dismissed the possibility that a war with Iraq—or the absence of war—would affect research restrictions, Widnall said that the exchanges that her report and general concern has incited within the scientific community is particularly important as the nation continues to struggle with conflict between openness and restriction.

“This period of dialogue is extremely important,” she said.

The Forum was organized as part of the 2003 Northeast Regional Student Pugwash Conference on the topic of “Science and Conflict.”

—Staff writer Nathan J. Heller can be reached at heller@fas.harvard.edu.