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Going Backwards: Researchers Say Science Is Hurt by Secrecy Policy Set Up by the White House
Published on Saturday, October 19, 2002 by the New York Times
Going Backwards
Researchers Say Science Is Hurt by Secrecy Policy Set Up by the White House
by William J. Broad
 

The presidents of the National Academies said yesterday that the Bush administration was going too far in limiting publication of some scientific research out of concern that it could aid terrorists.

Specifically, they said, the administration's policy of restricting the publication of federally financed research it deemed "sensitive but unclassified" threatened to "stifle scientific creativity and to weaken national security."

The category of "sensitive but unclassified" was poorly defined, the presidents said in a "Statement on Science and Security in an Age of Terrorism."

"Experience shows that vague criteria of this kind generate deep uncertainties among both scientists and officials responsible for enforcing regulations," the statement said.

Indeed, the policy, experts said, had already resulted in the administration's withdrawing of thousands of reports and papers from the public domain.

The National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine were created by the federal government to advise it on scientific and technological matters. But the academies are private organizations; they do not receive direct federal financing, but appropriations from the federal agencies for whom they conduct their research.

The presidents' statement is at least partly a reaction to the institutions' own clash with the policy. Last month, the National Academy of Sciences published a report on agricultural bioterrorism over the objections of the Bush administration.

In publishing the report, the academy said, it hoped to help American scientists identify ways to bolster the nation's biological defenses.

"That's one example," said E. William Colglazier, the executive director of the National Academy of Sciences. "There are others."

The general problem, Mr. Colglazier added, "is not having clear guidelines about what constitutes this sensitive area, because people have different opinions on what should or shouldn't be included. Right now, it's vague and poorly defined. But it shouldn't be just in the eye of the beholder."

More broadly, the academy presidents said, the government should reaffirm a principle laid down in 1985 during the Reagan administration: that no restrictions are placed upon the conduct or reporting of federally financed fundamental research that is unclassified.

A successful balance between security and openness, the presidents said, "demands clarity in the distinctions between classified and unclassified research."

Yesterday's statement was signed by Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences; William A. Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering; and Harvey V. Fineberg, president of the Institute of Medicine.

Responding to the statement, Gordon D. Johndroe, a spokesman for the White House Office of Homeland Security, said: "We continue to work with the scientific community to strike the appropriate balance between national security information that must be held close and scientific information that should be available for research purposes."

The tensions began early this year as the Bush administration began taking wide measures to tighten scientific secrecy in hopes of keeping terrorists from obtaining weapons of mass destruction. In January, the administration quietly began withdrawing from public release more than 6,600 technical documents that dealt mainly with the production of germ and chemical weapons.

Then, in a memorandum to all governmental agencies on March 19, Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff, urged them to redouble security safeguards. Special attention, he said, should be paid to "sensitive but unclassified information."

The need to protect information from inappropriate disclosure, Mr. Card wrote, "should be carefully considered, on a case-by-case basis, together with the benefits that result from the open and efficient exchange of scientific, technical and like information."

Soon afterward, the National Academy of Sciences became entangled in the new policy. The administration asked that an unclassified report it was writing — "Countering Agricultural Bioterrorism" — be kept from the public. The report, a two-year, $400,000 study, was being prepared for the Department of Agriculture.

The report warned that inadequate inspections at the nation's borders and gaps in intelligence data on foreign plant and animal pathogens raise the chance that a terrorist armed with, say, the foot-and-mouth virus, could enter the country and spread diseases that might cripple the nation's livestock and plants.

After months of discussions, Dr. Colglazier said, the academy published the report in September. He said a few detailed examples of the threats to the nation's food supplies were removed from the published report and placed in an appendix that was not made public.

"We made our own decision" on what to remove, Dr. Colglazier emphasized.

In their statement yesterday, the academy presidents called for a dialogue among scientists, engineers, health researchers and policy makers to develop criteria for determining when to classify or restrict public access to scientific information.

Among their recommendations, they suggested that a determination be made of what research bears on possible new security threats. Principles for researchers, they said, need to address questions like whether some areas of currently unclassified research should be classified in the new security environment.

The academies, Dr. Colglazier said, "have recognized that it makes sense to restrict public access to some areas of sensitive information that is unclassified," like information about national infrastructures that could be disrupted by terrorist attacks.

"But the concern," he said, "is that there should be clear guidance on what information would fall into this category."

Copyright The New York Times Company

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