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Science and Secrets

Lawmakers and universities seek a balance between academic freedom and security in the war on terror.
June 20, 2002

Since September 11, the scientific and political communities have sought to strike a new balance between openness and national security, a balance that could include restricting access to university research potentially useful to enemies of the United States. Last week, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology weighed in with a report recommending that the faculty conduct all classified research off-campus and reject restrictions on non-classified research, such as agreements that limit foreigners access to sensitive informationa stance that puts MIT at odds with the anti-terrorism U.S.A. Patriot Act.

MITs is the first such report issued by a major research university since the beginning of the war on terror, and will likely serve as a model to institutions seeking their own answers to difficult questions of academic freedom and social responsibility. We wanted to make a very clear statement about the value of openness in scientific research and education, and then have a clarity of policy that flowed from those values, says Sheila Widnall, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT and chair of the committee that authored the report.

Widnall, secretary of the Air Force from 1993 to 1997, says her colleagues at MIT watched with concern after last falls terrorist attacks as lawmakers and federal agencies responded with a growing number of restrictions regarding access to and disclosure of scientific information. In February, the university appointed a select committee to examine the issue and to report back on how faculty could best advance its core values of education, research and service to the nation and humanity. Their result is the report, titled In the Public Interest; MITs entire faculty will vote on their recommendations next fall.

Like many universities, MIT has long had a de facto ban on on-campus classified research. The university, located in Cambridge, MA, operates a second campus in nearby Lincoln for classified research. The Lincoln Lab, founded in 1951, has long served as a center for aerospace defense research, including radar and ballistic missile defense. The MIT report recommends that the university formalize this arrangement, and separate classified research from its education mission.

Widnall says the committee was careful to frame its recommendations in the broad context of the schools philosophy and not as a response to specific government policies. Nevertheless, the report cites sections of the U.S.A. Patriot Act, the broad anti-terror law passed last October and since expanded, as specifically problematic. Among other restrictions, the law forbids citizens of Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan or Syria from working with certain biological materials. The report calls such requirements not consistent with MITs values and principles, and suggests that the faculty may respond by abandoning any on-campus research affected by these restrictions.

That is precisely the kind of gray area that has long troubled scientists, says Bill Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering. Sensitive but unclassified is so incredibly ill-defined that we need to stay away from it with a ten-foot pole, he says. The concept is so squishy and fraught with danger that the only sensible thing for the research community to do demand [classification].

Uncertainty hurts not only academic freedom but also national security, says Jack Gibbons, President Clintons chief science advisor from 1993 to 1998, because it creates hard-to-police gray areas and lowers peoples sensitivity to classification. You build high fences where you need em, but none where you dont, or you wont have anybody to guard the fence.

Cold War Redux

The last time academic freedom and national security stirred such controversy was in the early 1980s, when cold war fears of Soviet infiltration led the federal government to implement severe restrictions on foreign researchers, and even limit what basic research U.S. scientists could publish. The rationale was that that the Soviet Union had intelligence operatives in this country, they were stealing us blind through informants, and the Reagan administration was determined to close down their operation, recalls Dale Corson, president emeritus of Cornell University.

In 1982, Corson chaired a National Academy of Science committee that published a report that convinced President Reagan to lift most controls on basic research. The Corson Report stood for two decades as the scientific communitys authoritative statement on academic freedom and national security. Next week, the Academy will publish a new report, addressing many of the same questions for science but in a new century, and a new reality where low-tech enemies could turn their access into immediate threats.

The two reports crystallize the concerned murmurs throughout the research community since last fall. How can there be open debate without open communication?  Can a diverse academic community exclude certain members? Neal Lane, the presidents science advisor from 1998 to 2001, says he expects many universities to tackle these questions in the coming months. After September 11, weve all thought about our role in society and our responsibility, he says. Ive had scientistsand people in other fieldscome up to me and say I want to do something; what can I do?

Corson says the answer 20 years ago holds true today: the best security lies in the pursuit of new knowledge, inas he sayskeeping ahead of our enemies by running faster. As the war on terror unfolds, Corson and other scientific leaders say their community stands ready to contributenot their silence, but their strengths: innovation, hard work and open debate.

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