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Statement on Scientific Openness and National Security

from Bruce Alberts, President, National Academy of Sciences
Wm. A. Wulf, President, National Academy of Engineering
Kenneth I. Shine, President, Institute of Medicine
and the Council of the National Academy of Sciences

May 21, 1999

We are deeply concerned about the consequences of potentially inappropriate restrictions on the program for foreign visitors at the Department of Energy's national laboratories. Such restrictions could harm our U.S. national interests by impeding scientific progress, weaken the nation's role as a key player in the international scientific community, and endanger international cooperative activities that bolster our national security and well-being by addressing such issues as nuclear safety and environmental cleanup. At the same time, we clearly recognize the importance of protecting U.S. national security interests from foreign espionage aimed at U.S. national laboratories. To contribute to the implementation of policies that maintain our scientific leadership while protecting national security, the National Academies will initiate a fast-track study with a workshop in July to examine these issues and make recommendations to the U.S. government.

A 1995 report from the Academies' National Research Council, A Review of the Department of Energy Classification Policy and Practice, urged DOE to adopt the following principle: "Construct high fences around narrow areas." That is, it recommended that the department maintain very stringent security around sharply defined and narrowly circumscribed areas, but reduce or eliminate classification around areas of lesser sensitivity. The report endorsed the view that scientific openness in unclassified areas is key to the health of the scientific enterprise.

New restrictions on interactions with foreign scientists would be damaging in ways we cannot fully anticipate. They would almost certainly lead to reciprocal restrictions on U.S. scientists' access to foreign laboratories, thereby greatly reducing our knowledge of and potential influence on other nations' activities. An unnecessarily restrictive environment also generates hostility and is likely to exaggerate concern about the intentions of others.

DOE national laboratories necessarily engage not only in classified military work but also in basic scientific research and educational programs, as well as technology transfer activities that stimulate scientific innovations and important new applications of technology. Many of the foreign scientists who visit U.S. national laboratories come by invitation because they bring new knowledge and expertise. Bringing a range of scientific expertise into these settings -- from the United States and abroad -- is essential for maintaining the intellectual vitality and quality of these laboratories and for sustaining their capacity to attract and retain promising young talent.

Several studies of the National Academies also have articulated the importance, for U.S. and international security, of increasing degrees of openness and transparency in certain programs. Openness reinforces confidence and helps to promote the security systems that are necessary for controlling chemical, nuclear, and biological weapons. The 1997 National Academy of Sciences report Controlling Dangerous Pathogens emphasizes that appropriately structured U.S.-Russian scientific cooperation, featuring direct lab-to-lab contact and broad transparency, would increase the certainty that chemical-weapons work is not continued in Russia. It also would help avoid the "brain drain" of specialists from Russia to undesirable places. Likewise, the 1999 National Research Council report Protecting Nuclear Weapons Material in Russia concludes that "continued DOE involvement in strengthening material protection, control, and accountability in Russia should be a high-priority national security imperative for the United States for at least a decade."

In the post-Cold War era, the scientific and engineering communities in this country have increasingly been called upon to play important diplomatic roles in establishing international partnerships. They have facilitated important progress in such areas as counter-proliferation, demilitarization, and weapons reduction, environmental cleanup, nuclear safety, and counter-terrorism, while helping to divert foreign military manpower toward civilian goals. These interactions, which are fostered by openness and by free communication among scientists, clearly are in the nation's best interests.

In conclusion, national security is served both through positive new scientific advances facilitated by international communication among scientists and through careful protection of crucial classified information from foreign espionage. The Academies' upcoming study will examine how best to achieve both of these objectives, which are essential to the general well-being of our citizens.

Council of the National Academy of Sciences

Bruce Alberts (president)
National Academy of Sciences
Washington, D.C.

Jack Halpern (vice president)
Louis Block Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Chemistry
University of Chicago

Peter H. Raven (home secretary)
Missouri Botanical Garden
St. Louis

F. Sherwood Rowland* (foreign secretary)
Donald Bren Research Professor of Chemistry and Earth System Science
University of California

Ronald L. Graham (treasurer)
Irwin and Joan Jacobs Professor of Computer and Information Sciences
Department of Computer Science and Engineering
University of California, San Diego
La Jolla

Mary Ellen Avery (councilor)
Thomas Morgan Rotch Distinguished Professor of Pediatrics, Emeritus
Harvard Medical School

Lewis M. Branscomb (councilor)
Professor Emeritus
Center for Science and International Affairs
John F. Kennedy School of Government
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.

Ralph J. Cicerone (councilor)
University of California

Marye Anne Fox (councilor)
North Carolina State University

Ralph E. Gomory (councilor)
Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
New York City

David M. Kipnis* (councilor)
Distinguished University Professor
Department of Internal Medicine
Washington University School of Medicine
St. Louis

Daniel E. Koshland* (councilor)
Professor in the Graduate School
Department of Molecular and Cell Biology
University of California

William J. Rutter (councilor)
Chiron Corp.
Emeryville, Calif.

Luis Sequeira (councilor)
J.C. Walker Professor Emeritus
Department of Plant Pathology
University of Wisconsin

Carla J. Shatz (councilor)
Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and
Division of Neurobiology
Department of Molecular and Cell Biology
University of California

Jean D. Wilson (councilor)
Charles Cameron Sprague Distinguished Chair in Biomedical Science
University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center

Robert Wurtz (councilor)
Laboratory of Sensorimotor Research
National Eye Institute
National Institutes of Health
Bethesda, Md.

* Did not vote

Copyright National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

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