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Statement on Science and Security in an Age of Terrorism
From Bruce Alberts, Wm. A. Wulf, and Harvey Fineberg,
Presidents of the National Academies

October 18, 2002



After the September 11, 2001, assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the subsequent anthrax attacks via the postal system, the scientific, engineering, and health research community was quick to respond at many levels, from initiating new research to analyzing needs for improved security. This community recognizes that it has a clear responsibility to protect the United States, as it has in the past, by harnessing the best science and technology to help counter terrorism and other national security threats.

In meeting this responsibility, the scientific, engineering, and health research community also recognizes a need to achieve an appropriate balance between scientific openness and restrictions on public information. Restrictions are clearly needed to safeguard strategic secrets; but openness also is needed to accelerate the progress of technical knowledge and enhance the nation's understanding of potential threats.

A successful balance between these two needs -- security and openness -- demands clarity in the distinctions between classified and unclassified research. We believe it to be essential that these distinctions not include poorly defined categories of "sensitive but unclassified" information that do not provide precise guidance on what information should be restricted from public access. Experience shows that vague criteria of this kind generate deep uncertainties among both scientists and officials responsible for enforcing regulations. The inevitable effect is to stifle scientific creativity and to weaken national security.

To develop sharp criteria for determining when to classify and/or restrict public access to scientific information, as well as to address the other important issues outlined below, we call for a renewed dialogue among scientists, engineers, health researchers and policy-makers. To stimulate such a dialogue, we present two "action points": one focused on scientists, engineers, and health researchers and the other focused on policy-makers.

Action Point 1

The scientific, engineering, and health research community should work closely with the federal government to determine which research may be related to possible new security threats and to develop principles for researchers in each field. Among the questions that the scientific, engineering, and health community should address are the following:
  • Are there areas of currently unclassified research that should be classified in the new security environment?
  • How can the scientific, engineering, and health community establish systems that can monitor this issue effectively, as science and potential threats change over time?
  • Do any materials widely used in research require additional security procedures?
  • How can the scientific, engineering, and health community establish systems that will rapidly detect new potential threats from terrorism, as well as novel opportunities for countering terrorism, that arise from new discoveries, and convey these in an effective manner to the relevant government agencies?

Action Point 2

The federal government should affirm and maintain the general principle of National Security Decision Directive 189, issued in 1985:

"No restrictions may be placed upon the conduct or reporting of federally funded fundamental research that has not received national security classification, except as provided in applicable U.S. statutes."

In determining what research and information should be restricted from public access, agencies should ask:
  • How should we apply the principle of building "high fences around narrow areas" in the new security environment, so as to protect critical and well-defined information and yet permit the essential flow of scientific and technical knowledge and human capital?
  • How can such determinations be made at the outset of a research program so as not to disrupt the research?
  • How can we avoid creation of vague and poorly defined categories of "sensitive but unclassified" information that do not provide precise guidance on what information should be restricted from public access?
  • How can the government enlist the help of a large number of the nation's best scientists, engineers, and health researchers in counterterrorism efforts, for both the unclassified and the classified areas of the overall program?

Achieving the purpose of scientific and technological activity -- to promote the welfare of society and to strengthen national security -- will require ingenuity from our science, engineering, and health community, as well as from the many agencies of the federal, state, and local governments involved in counterterrorism. The nation's safety and the continued improvement of our standard of living depend on careful, informed action on the part of both governments and the scientific, engineering, and health community. A continuing, meaningful dialogue needs to begin -- one that produces a true collaboration for the many decisions that need to be made.

BRUCE ALBERTS, President, National Academy of Sciences

WM. A. WULF, President, National Academy of Engineering

HARVEY V. FINEBERG, President, Institute of Medicine


Read the accompanying background material.