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Psst ... Keep This to Yourself

18 October 2007 (All day)
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The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 on the United States have raised concerns about the security implications of federally funded research. That has led several agencies to categorize some of the research as "sensitive but unclassified" (SBU). Many academics have protested the trend, which puts scientists in the uncomfortable position of not being able to publish their findings or involve foreign nationals in the project. Today, in an apparent concession to the government, a National Research Council (NRC) panel issued a report acknowledging that the SBU designation may indeed be appropriate for some rare projects. But the panel has urged the government to use this classification sparingly and to spell out the criteria for its use.

Using the SBU category helps government agencies assign research problems to the best and brightest minds, including on those campuses that do not accept any classified work. "Sensitive but unclassified may have a role in very limited areas," says Jacques Gansler, vice president for research at the University of Maryland, College Park, and co-chair of NRC's Committee on a New University-Government Partnership for Science and Security. But Gansler and other panelists say that the government needs to standardize the definition of SBU--more than 50 definitions are currently used by agencies--so that very few projects end up falling under that category.

The National Academies' report is based on several regional meetings with government, university, and industry representatives. At these discussions, officials from the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, and other federal agencies have pointed out the need to fortify campus research against potential espionage by terrorist groups. While acknowledging those concerns, university administrators and scientists have warned that policies such as restricting the publication of research findings and excluding foreign nationals from projects may weaken national security by undermining fundamental research.

To resolve the tension between the two sides, the NRC panel suggests setting up a high-level Science and Security Commission within the White House to monitor security policies affecting the research enterprise, from looking into how export-control rules should be applied at university campuses to examining visa policies concerning foreign scholars. The commission would be co-chaired by the National Security Advisor and the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and housed within the National Security Council.

"The U.S. security and research communities need to work together to weigh the latest information about potential threats," says Alice Gast, co-chair of the panel and president of Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. "We are very conscious of the security concerns. But we really need to get this balance right."

Having a federal entity dedicated to addressing science and security concerns is a great idea, says Robert Hardy of the nonprofit Council on Government Relations. "The question is whether it would be at a high enough administrative level within the federal establishment to have any real authority," he says.

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