Science and Security, Again

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Science  22 Aug 2008:
Vol. 321, Issue 5892, pp. 1019
DOI: 10.1126/science.1163738

The struggle between open Science and National Security is an old story. Back in 1981, government attempts to limit foreign visitors to U.S. laboratories and control access to fundamental research projects led to widespread academic anger. The Department of Defense-Universities Forum in the early 1980s, of which I was co-chair, struggled to resolve difficulties presented by applications (for example, of international arms traffic regulations) to withhold access to basic, nonmilitary research. For years, only limited gains were made, but in 1985, to everyone's surprise, President Ronald Reagan ended this long-running controversy by executing National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 189. NSDD 189 provided that only classification could be used to limit the disclosure of basic research results. It was a stunning policy shift that delighted the scientific community.

Well, we now find ourselves in a post-9/11 world and are learning that even good things don't last forever. Scientists now live in a strange alternative universe. On the one hand, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, during her earlier term as the National Security Advisor, announced that NSDD 189 still applied to basic research. But in this new security-conscious environment, that principle came to be honored primarily in the breach; soon scientists were complaining right and left that “Sensitive But Unclassified” (SBU) designations were being used to restrict publication. Science published accounts of this epidemic of faux classification in its News section and on the Editorial page, emphasizing the ambiguity under which the scientific community must labor. Restrictions short of classification were absolutely not permitted—but they were all over the place!


A number of universities were uncomfortable enough about this to attempt some documentation of the difficulties. For example, in 2004, a 20-institution task force of the Association of American Universities and the Council on Governmental Relations was charged to identify contract and grant language inconsistent with the stated policy embodied in NSDD 189. They combed their records and found many cases of publication restrictions, limitations on the access of foreign nationals to fundamental research projects, and others; amounting to 138 instances in total. In some cases, the differences were negotiated out; in others, the universities accepted the restrictions; and in many, the universities simply decided not to do the research. Last month, the task force released its 2007 follow-up survey and report, indicating 180 such instances.

In 2005, a commission jointly organized by the Department of Homeland Security program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies—not an organization notably soft on security—issued a white paper in which it strongly recommended that NSDD 189 be the central and only provision regarding security controls over fundamental research. It added strong advice to the effect that implementation should be done carefully so as to “avoid incursions on openness.” Late last year, a National Academies committee issued Science and Security in a Post-9/11 World, an excellent report on the present status. The committee's co-chairs, Alice Gast and Jacques Gansler, summarized these findings last month in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Although it's clear that some of the old problems are still with us, there is some really good news about the future. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates recently undertook a review of the situation. The result was a tough memorandum this June from John J. Young Jr., the undersecretary of Defense responsible for acquisition. Young's memo fully endorsed NSDD 189 and supplied blunt “clarifying guidance” to Department of Defense (DOD) officers and units. The basic message is that SBU is dead on arrival and that compliance with NSDD 189 is the order of the day.

Secretaries Rice and Gates deserve the thanks of the scientific community for upholding the central principle of NSDD 189. The tough procedural talk from Undersecretary Young should end the practice whereby middle-level officials can invent restrictive categories to reflect their individual convictions about security. So if your next research grant or contract from the DOD should turn up with a publication restriction based on SBU, you might write Undersecretary Young about it, and then see if anything happens. It should.

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