Background Paper on
Science and Security in an Age of Terrorism

A vigorous scientific and technological enterprise is essential to advance understanding of our world, improve the conditions of life for all people, spur economic development, and provide for national security. When addressing national security needs, maximizing the benefits of science and technology requires creating closely held secrets in some areas, while encouraging the global sharing of knowledge in others. For more than 50 years, the United States has maintained a largely stable but delicate balance between openness and secrecy. It is this balance that has allowed science and technology to be used so effectively to make the nation safer.

In recent decades the National Academies have issued a series of reports and presidential statements examining this tension between openness and secrecy.[1] This paper, based on the discussions of the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy [2], examines this tension in the context of today's national security environment.

Today, terrorism has changed our view of the world, spurred by recent attacks at home and abroad by both Americans and foreigners. The terrorist threat includes nuclear devices and chemical and biological agents. The threat can come not only from nation states but also from small, stateless groups and even individuals. And we now recognize that the connectedness of modern systems of transportation, information, agriculture, energy, and health care brings greater efficiency, as well as new types of interdependencies that create vulnerabilities for citizens here at home.[3]

Our nation has reassessed its security systems since September 2001. The federal government has either adopted or is considering tighter security measures to counteract terrorism. These include increased monitoring of foreign students and scholars, restrictions on access to certain information and materials, new exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act, an expanded list of technologies subject to export control or classification, and some screening of scientific, engineering, and health publications.[,5] When biologists at a U.S. university demonstrated the ability to synthesize a live poliovirus from ingredients obtained from a scientific supply company, some criticized the researchers for releasing information that could conceivably be used for nefarious purposes.[6]

The scientific and technological community, for its part, immediately responded to September 11 at many levels, from helping to analyze the attacks to recommending improvements to national security. Scientists, engineers, and health professionals continue to assess how they can best help to identify, deter, and counter terrorist threats.[7] At the same time, the community has voiced concern that possible restrictions on the conduct or communication of research could be counterproductive for improving national security. For example, the federal government initially proposed restrictions on the study of four plant pathogens that are indigenous and under intensive scientific investigation. Experts in the field were quick to point out that these pathogens would not be effective terrorist agents, and that the continued open publication and dissemination of research results is essential for controlling these diseases.

Example of Government-Science Collaboration:
Classifying Agricultural Pathogens

In June 2002, the government tentatively proposed that 13 plant pathogens be placed on a mandated "select list" of plant and animal pathogens by the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002. Pathogens on this list would then be subject to additional security and reporting measures based on their potential for use by terrorists to attack the nation's supply of food and fiber.

Members of the American Phytopathological Society (APS) recognized that most of the pathogens on the list represented new threats to U.S. agriculture, but that four -- wheat stripe rust, wheat stem rust, rice blast, and potato late blight (the disease that caused the Irish famine) -- were common, worldwide pathogens that scientists had been fighting for decades. They were convinced that the inclusion of these pathogens on the list would restrict research while bringing no apparent benefit to homeland security.

While all four diseases are indeed troublesome -- stripe rust is epidemic this year in the Northwest -- they are virtually endemic wherever wheat, rice, and potatoes are grown. In addition, no single disease of this nature would threaten the nation's vast and flexible food supply.

The APS quickly conveyed this message to the government, which responded by proposing to list only foreign and genetically modified strains of the four pathogens. This revised proposal was also withdrawn by the government when APS pointed out that listing these strains would restrict ongoing cooperative programs on these diseases, especially programs with Canada and Mexico, as well as research with isolates that have been bioengineered with scientifically useful marker genes.

The APS, like other professional societies, has been quick to respond to the terrorist threat at many levels by establishing a standing committee to develop its own list of high-risk pathogens and working closely with the USDA to upgrade regional diagnostic clinics. It has also issued a detailed white paper recommending actions for itself as a scientific society, appropriate investments in basic research, creation of a CDC-like national plant disease center, training of first responders, and an increase in the nation's plant pathologists.

Sources: James Cook and Larry Madden, "Crop Biosecurity and Countering Agricultural Bioterrorism: Responses of the American Phytopathological Society." Full article is available at
Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002.
Amendments to Federal Register on September 26, available at

The open conduct of research strengthens our ability to respond to terrorism by allowing the best minds throughout the world to address critical concerns. This is true, for instance, in the "dual use" areas of biological science, where restrictions on the study of certain pathogens would limit the nation's ability to prevent disease and to formulate defenses against bioweapons.

Thus, the nation must balance two needs for achieving a safe and secure society: 1) the need to restrict access to certain information, and 2) the need for a strong research enterprise that improves both our general welfare and our security. Clearly, policy-makers must seek mechanisms by which both interests can be served.

To this end, 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:
The science, engineering, and health research community has a critical leadership role to play in safeguarding certain information in the interest of national security. The focus of that leadership within the community has changed over time. For example, prior to the Manhattan Project, it was the physical science community that first realized the need to restrict some information about uranium research.

Example of Voluntary Restraint of Information by Scientists:
Research on Uranium During the War Years

Through a series of rapid discoveries on the eve of World War II, several groups of physicists in the United States and Europe began to recognize the awesome destructive potential of nuclear fission. As Germany's offensive aims became clear, some of these scientists also saw the need to suppress any information that might help Hitler make an atomic bomb.

One of these scientists was Leo Szilard who attempted to coordinate a publication ban. This ban failed in 1938, however, when a group in France released early results on neutron emission, and estimated that a uranium chain reaction was a possibility. Germany, as predicted, saw the military potential of a chain reaction and established a state-supported program of research on nuclear energy.

In the spring of 1940, at a meeting at the U.S. National Research Council, physicist Gregory Breit spoke persuasively in favor of voluntary censorship. The committee agreed to appoint a "reference committee" to which American scientific journals would be asked to submit all papers on uranium or other research that had a bearing on national defense.

In June 1940, the reference committee was formalized by the establishment of a joint National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council "Advisory Committee on Scientific Publications." Within weeks, the reference committee provided, with no government involvement, a communication channel for nuclear scientists and the scientific community, devising a voluntary mechanism that effectively confined vital scientific information to the United States. Within a year, the committee had secured the cooperation of 237 scientific journals, covering every field of research that was judged to relate to national defense.

Sources: Rexmond C. Cochrane, The National Academy of Sciences: The First Hundred Years, 1863-1963, Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences, 1978, pp. 382-432.
Spencer R. Weart, "Scientists with a secret," Physics Today, February 1976, pp. 23-30. Weart was director of the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics in New York.

Today, the chemical, biological, and even social science communities bear new responsibilities to identify materials and areas of research that should -- or should not be -- classified, and to provide assessments on the impact of classification on scientific, engineering, and health research.[8] Appropriate experts can also suggest new areas of research, and assess whether existing knowledge has new relevance to strengthening the nation's security.[9]

The science, engineering, and health community can also clarify the distinction between the basic research that yields fundamental new understanding and the technological developments that are required for weapons development. For example, basic physics expresses the principles underlying a nuclear weapon, but an actual bomb is the product of numerous technical breakthroughs and refinements. Similarly, theoretical knowledge of a pathogen's genome is separated from a weapon of mass destruction by many delicate experimental steps. Security might well be strengthened by classifying certain types of specific findings, whereas restrictions on the conduct of the underlying physics or biology would simply slow the delivery of the benefits of research to society.

Scientists, engineers, and health researchers can inform the decision-making of policy-makers through their nongovernment organizations, disciplinary societies, industrial and academic institutions, journals, and other venues. They can also encourage colleagues to serve as staff or as volunteers to scientific advisory committees in the national security agencies that would benefit from additional technical expertise. More active involvement by these scientists, engineers, and health researchers can help ensure that the exchange of knowledge remains open to a degree that is consistent with national security.


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:

The federal government has the responsibility to maintain an open flow of information to a degree consistent with national security. As indicated in a memorandum from Andrew Card, White House Chief of Staff, "The need to protect such sensitive information from inappropriate disclosure should be carefully considered, on a case-by-case basis, together with the benefits that result from the open and efficient exchange of scientific, technical, and like information."[10] The nation needs an open flow of information for two purposes: to keep the nation safe and to improve the welfare of society. Achieving both objectives depends on a firm and effective partnership between science and government, and on our continued trust in the basic openness that has kept our country strong.

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.

Open communication of the results of research is indispensable to the "self-correcting" activities of science, engineering, and health research. That is, new discoveries and theories must be published and vetted by the worldwide scientific, engineering, and health research community -- both to detect errors and to allow peers to review and reproduce results. This process of open dissemination and peer review lies at the heart of the scientific method and powers the steady advance of knowledge for all purposes, including strengthening the nation's security by ensuring that the best science is available for defensive purposes.

Even classified research, within its much smaller universe, must be confirmed through the participation of a community of outstanding science, engineering, and health researchers.

1. National Research Council, 1982. Scientific Communication and National Security. National Academy Press. Washington, D.C.; Alberts, Bruce, Wulf, Wm. A. and Shine, Kenneth I., Nov. 19, 1999. Statement on Openness and Secrecy at U.S. Weapons Laboratories; National Research Council. 1999. Balancing Scientific Openness and National Security Controls at the Nation's Nuclear Weapons Laboratories. National Academy Press. Washington, D.C.; Alberts, Bruce, Wulf, Wm. A. and Shine, Kenneth I., May 21, 1999. Statement on Scientific Openness and National Security; National Research Council, 1995. A Review of the Department of Energy Classification Policy and Practice. National Academy Press. Washington, D.C.; Press, Frank, 1982. Statement before the Subcommittee on Science, Research, and Technology and Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight of the Committee on Science and Technology. U.S. House of Representatives.

2. The Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) is a joint committee of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. More information on COSEPUP is available at

3. National Research Council, 2002. Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism. Washington, D.C. National Academies Press. p. ES-1.

4. Knezo, Genevieve J., 2002. Possible Impacts of Major Counterterrorism Security Actions on Research, Development, and Higher Education. Congressional Research Service. Washington, D.C. p. 3.

5. On August 6, 2002, the government announced that it would mail a Guidance Document and Notification Form to some 190,000 facilities in the U.S. that might possess biological materials dangerous to humans or agriculture. Persons in possession of any such materials would be required to notify the government, as specified in the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 (PL 107-188), signed into law on June 12. For a summary of the Act, see

6. Weiss, Rick. "Polio-Causing Virus Created in N.Y. Lab Made-From-Scratch Pathogen Prompts Concerns About Bioethics, Terrorism." Washington Post, July 12, 2002. p. A01.

7. National Research Council, 2002. Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism. Washington, D.C. National Academies Press.

8. The American Society for Microbiology, for example, has revised its publication policy, requesting that all reviewers of publications advise editors of perceived misuses of microbiology or information derived from microbiology. See

9. As an example, see chapter 9 of Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism, which deals extensively with the effects of fear on a population subjected to attack by terrorists.

10. On March 19, 2002, Andrew Card, Assistant to the President and White House Chief of Staff, issued a memorandum that discussed "Action to Safeguard Information Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction and Other Sensitive Documents Related to Homeland Security" and requested federal agencies to examine their current policies. In September of 2002, according to Daniel Chenok, an information policy specialist at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the White House Office of Homeland Security has requested OMB to define the category of "sensitive but unclassified information" and clarify its role in information management within existing statutes such as the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The OMB draft policy will be published for public comment prior to adoption.

Read the accompanying statement from the presidents of the National Academies.