Trading Data With the 'Enemy'

Staff Writer

After months of protests by U.S. publishers, the federal government last week indicated that it was preparing to ease restrictions on the publication of papers from countries under a U.S. trade embargo. But the good news was accompanied by a troubling development on another front--the government's decision to prevent more than 50 U.S. scientists from attending a conference in Cuba.

Both actions involve the Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which is responsible for enforcing trade sanctions against Iran, Sudan, Libya, and Cuba. Last September, the agency ruled that U.S. journals needed a government license to edit submissions from these four countries (Science, 19 September 2003, p. 1646). A senior OFAC official told Science last week that the agency expects to grant blanket permission for the editing of manuscripts from embargoed countries. That would effectively end the editing ban.

"It's nice that OFAC is rethinking its stand," says Jean Smith, a spokesperson for Congressman Howard Berman (D-CA). In a letter to OFAC on 3 March, Berman called the agency's September ruling "patently absurd" and inconsistent with a 1988 law that exempts information from economic embargoes.

Meanwhile, however, OFAC's policies are threatening another type of scientific exchange--travel to scientific meetings. Last month OFAC sent out warning letters to U.S. researchers who were scheduled to attend the Fourth International Symposium on Coma and Death in Havana, Cuba, which met last week, threatening "criminal and/or civil penalties" if they traveled to the meeting without a specific license. None of the U.S. participants attended.

Although travel to Cuba is restricted under the U.S. government's Trading With the Enemy Act, U.S. professionals can attend international meetings or do research without seeking prior approval from OFAC. Several U.S. researchers had attended the same meeting previously under this provision and were planning to do so again. "Those meetings were no different from this one, and I had no trouble traveling to them without a license," says Stuart Youngner, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. This time, he wasn't going to risk it--"I didn't want to go to jail."

OFAC's position could close "unique avenues for the flow of scientific information from Cuba to the U.S.," says Frank Muller-Karger, a marine scientist at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, who holds a specific OFAC license and travels frequently to Cuba for research. Muller-Karger is particularly concerned that isolating Cuban scientists "may result in less access to Cuban waters," which would adversely affect "U.S. meteorological and oceanographic research."

Related sites
OFAC guidelines on travel to Cuba
The Fourth International Symposium on Coma and Death
OFAC home page

Posted in Scientific Community