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Balancing science and security

President Mary Sue Coleman discusses the balance between security and an open, free, and thriving scientific enterprise in Science Magazine.

Federal elected officials and members of the United States intelligence community have expressed concern about the security of the nation's scientific and technological information, articulating worries about China, Russia, and Iran. The fears include potential academic espionage, theft of intellectual property, and threats to academic integrity. As federal policy-makers respond, it is critical that they work with the scientific community to balance securing strategically important information with maintaining the free flow of fundamental scientific knowledge and international talent necessary for scientific progress. History is a guide to striking this balance.

During the Cold War, the U.S. security community raised similar concerns about the Soviet Union. In response, the Association of American Universities worked with the Department of Defense in the early 1980s to establish a forum for Defense and university officials. As a result, the academic and security communities held important discussions on how to identify and secure research that warranted special protections while simultaneously ensuring that such measures did not unnecessarily restrict what could be published in scientific journals or limit the ability of universities to tap foreign scientific talent.

Building on those discussions, in 1982 the U.S. National Academy of Sciences released Scientific Communication and National Security. Citing this report, President Reagan issued National Security Decision Directive 189 (NSDD 189) in 1985. NSDD 189 states that to the maximum extent possible, the products of basic and applied research funded by the federal government should be published and widely disseminated, and that classification should be used in those limited circumstances when controlling scientific information is necessary to protect national security. NSDD 189 was reaffirmed in 2001 by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during the George W. Bush administration.

By establishing that government strongly protects a narrow set of key technologies when imposing information security controls, NSDD 189 has ensured the widespread, public, and open dissemination of research results. Maintaining such access is essential to scientific progress as well as to national and economic security.

The core principles underlying NSDD 189 are now threatened. Legislative proposals, such as that introduced recently in Congress by Sen. J. Hawley (R-MO), would impose new limitations on who can work on, and what information can be shared about, unclassified research projects deemed by government bureaucrats to be “sensitive”—a category that actually does not exist under current rules. If enacted, this proposal would negatively affect universities' ability to engage in scientific research on behalf of the U.S. government.

A more effective approach to address the current security concerns is contained in the Securing American Science and Technology Act, introduced in May by Rep. R. M. Sherrill (D-NJ) and Rep. A. Gonzalez (R-OH). This legislation, now part of a larger bill, establishes an interagency working group under the existing authority granted to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy's National Science and Technology Council. The working group would coordinate activities across disparate federal agencies to ensure that, in accordance with NSDD 189, existing security controls such as classification are properly employed to protect national security while not limiting the free flow of scientific information. Additionally, the legislation establishes a new National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine roundtable to facilitate ongoing dialogue between the university and scientific community and federal officials about this crucial balance.

For American science to advance, basic and applied research must be openly and widely shared. At the same time, the United States must continue to benefit—as it has for decades—from the world's best and brightest scholars coming to the country to study and work. Indiscriminate restrictions on either could do irreparable harm to the U.S. scientific enterprise.

This op-ed was originally published by Science Magazine