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Sputniks and Security


Recent revelations that the United States has by no means an edge on scientific development calls for a radical re-evaluation of our security restrictions on basic research. No one questions that such data as war plans and specific quantities and design of military apparatus should be kept secret. On the other hand, restrictions on more theoretical matters, many scientists feel, keep more secrets from ourselves than from the enemy.

Part of the difficulty lies in America's propensity to believe that each super-weapon has somewhere a safely guarded and esoteric "secret." This tendency reached its extreme when recently a Congressman suggested that the Russians had stolen the "idea" of a space satellite from us.

The tight control of almost all scientific research (at least in the physical sciences) stems from the nature of modern investigation. As research becomes more complex, it also becomes more expensive and shows less possibility of reaping a financial gain. Therefore the Department of Defense has become the primary patron of science in this country and has transplanted its military thinking from the battlefield to the laboratory.

Most scientists will agree that tight security restrictions slow the pace of developments considerably and often cause duplication of effort as well as sheer failure. Not only does the pressure of security promote mediocrity by denying the opportunity for free criticism, basically it stifles the growth of education in these fields because of the scientist's difficulty in separating the classified and non-classified in his mind. For example, Enrico Fermi was forced to discontinue lecturing on atomic theory after the war because he felt that he could not help but divulge classified material.

Even making the unwarranted assumption that this material gets proper dissemination at Los Alamos, it is still true that graduate students who are supposed to be in the vanguard of their fields are not for a large part ignorant of new and important developments which might radically change what they are working on.

But even assuming the highly questionable thesis that classification of basic scientific research is beneficial, there is still no point in keeping secrets from an enemy who knows them all the time. And as the Russian scientific offensive gains momentum, the basic material that we possess and the Russians don't will decrease even further, if indeed it has not already reached the vanishing point.

In a way, our tight security restrictions have already held back scientific advances substantially. The free world has many more trained scientific minds than the Soviet bloc and considerable superior resources. Yet the U.S. has tied one hand behind its back in refusing to exchange important data with allies.

This is not to say that the basic security legislation is totally bad. But its unimaginative and rigid interpretation has caused considerable slowdown.

First of all, the security officials are on the whole second rate civil service or military personnel with no scientific training. And there is no prospect of improving the calibre of such employees because of the basic boredom and unattractiveness of the work.

Second, the cloak of security is all too often used to hide mistakes and inefficiency instead of genuinely confidential material. No one has ever gotten into trouble for over-classifying material, so the bureaucrats responsible naturally tend to err on the side of caution.

And third, the criteria for clearance on the whole are over-rigorous, artificial, and inflexible. Through petty technicality, we have wasted the talents of some of the possible top contributors, Oppenheimer being a prominent, though controversial example. It is difficult and expensive to clear a national of even the most friendly foreign country--and after all, the bulk of basic research in atomic physics and rocketry has been done by foreigners. Moreover, such a disqualifying factor as having even distant relatives in a Soviet-bloc country, though sensible in general, has become an ironclad rule. But perhaps the most outstanding excess of the men in padded shoes is demanding exhaustive security clearance for minor and non-sensitive posts: file clerks, janitors, and supply-room employees.

It furthermore remains to be proven that, since most secrets are shared by several hundred people, anything really important can be kept secret, human nature being what it is.

Since gains in scientific progress seem to outweigh any competitive advantage that imperfect secrecy may give us over an enemy, it seems clear that the security program regarding basic research should be radically liberalized, particularly in the direction of sharing important data with our allies.

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