Campus & Community

Academic freedom vs. national security discussed:

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ARCO Forum panel debates benefits, shortcomings of scholarly restrictions

The free flow of ideas may be a better protection against biological weapons than the secrecy created by classifying academic research, said panelists at the Kennedy School of Government Friday (Feb. 21).

“Ignorance is not a great defense,” said Harvard School of Public Health Dean Barry Bloom. “Our hope is to put our best people out there to counter what [terrorists] are doing.”

Bloom was one of three speakers examining the increasing restrictions on academic institutions that have resulted from the heightened security consciousness after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The discussion, “The State v. the Academy: National Security or Scientific Freedom,” featured Bloom, Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Charles Vest, and Sheila Widnall, the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of Aeronautics at M.I.T. and former secretary of the Air Force. It was moderated by John Holdren, director of the Science, Technology and Public Policy Program at the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

The event was co-sponsored by the Harvard Student Pugwash Conference, the Kennedy School’s Science and Technology Professional Interest Council, and the KSG’s Education Policy Professional Interest Council.

Panelists discussed varying ways higher education has been affected by the heightened security awareness, from restrictions on foreign students traveling to the United States to the labeling of research as “sensitive” or “classified.”

Vest said he’s concerned not only that more research will become classified, but that new designations of “sensitive but unclassified” will expand, creating confusion over what can be published and what cannot.

Widnall said the purpose of classifying research should not be to lock knowledge away forever, but to give the government a chance to gain a head start by developing the area in question more quickly.

She gave an example of the Air Force’s use of adaptive optics to sharpen the intensity of a laser beam. The same technology, she said, is also useful in telescopes. The Air Force classified the adaptive optics research, she said, until outside scientists began to do parallel research. Having established a technological lead, she said, the Air Force then declassified its research.

“The purpose of classifying is to run faster, to develop your technology,” Widnall said.

The danger in the current atmosphere, panelists said, is that government officials will begin to err on the side of classifying more and more research.

If more research is classified, panelists warned of a chilling effect on work, as researchers are discouraged from certain projects by restrictions and by the inability to publish results.

Widnall said she’s encouraged by the current dialog on this topic between academia and the government. Several committees and workshops have already been set up to work out reasonable restrictions, she said.

One factor making these talks particularly important is that, unlike physics and other sciences with long histories of working with the nation’s defense apparatus, the biological sciences under scrutiny today don’t have that history of cooperation. In fact, she said, it’s not even clear what federal agency classified biological research would be conducted under.

But Bloom said the nature of both biological warfare agents and of the threat of those agents makes classifying research on them a bit pointless.

Many agents, he said, can be created from easily obtainable equipment that has legitimate commercial uses in activities such as brewing beer or making cheese. The Defense Department, Bloom said, took just one month to set up a bioweapons lab using solely commercial products.

In addition, Bloom said, a big aspect of the threat is the psychological damage inflicted by the use of biological terror. The anthrax incidents that followed the 9/11 attacks killed a handful of people, but had a huge effect on mail service and on people’s psyche. Influenza, meanwhile, kills thousands of people annually but there’s little outcry. That psychological nature of the terror attack, while real, cannot be countered by classifying research, Bloom said.

“The first question is ‘Do these restrictions protect us?’ and to a large extent they don’t,” Bloom said.

Widnall said she believes the U.S. government understands the importance of research and the importance of science as a force in our society. Further, she said, restrictions on students coming here to study may prove counterproductive, as she knows many students from other countries who adopt American values while studying here and become advocates for those values when they return home.

“Knowledge- and fact-based decision making are spreading around the world. We shouldn’t cut anyone off from that,” Widnall said.