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July|August 2003

Censoring Science

By Lincoln Caplan

LESS THAN SIX MONTHS after Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome broke out last November in China's Guangdong Province, it had spread to 30 countries, killing over 500 of the more than 7,700 people who had contracted the virus. Because it can't be treated by antibiotics or existing antiviral medicines, SARS has spread panic at an even faster rate. Yet there is some cause for optimism: The speed with which it was identified and controlled was unprecedented. Within a month of the World Health Organization's global alert, laboratories operating in the United States and nine other countries had collaborated to create a complete genomic map of the two strands of the pathogen creating the virus, publishing the results first online and then quickly in the peer-reviewed journal Science.

Slowing the spread of SARS required the collaboration of many nations—the first sequence was authenticated by researchers in Vancouver and the second at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which then had them tested by a team of Dutch scientists—but even within America's borders it was a multinational effort. Science in the United States has long been an international affair: More than a third of the Americans who have won Nobel Prizes in chemistry, medicine, and physics were born outside the United States, and we continue to rely on immigrants and visitors from abroad to staff our universities and laboratories. Almost 40 percent of engineering instructors here today were born overseas, as are a similar proportion of graduate students in computer sciences and math. If the United States "hopes to maintain its leadership in science and technology," observed Alice Gast, a professor and the vice president for research at MIT, it must educate students and undertake research as it has in the SARS case, in collaboration with "the rest of the world."

LEADING AMERICAN SCIENTISTS believe this kind of collaboration is in serious jeopardy. New federal laws, regulations, and policies born in the wake of September 11 have put up barriers to the free exchange of ideas. The government's scrutiny of visa applicants has expanded to cover areas of scholarship like landscape architecture and environmental planning that have little to do with issues of security. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently noted that work at the University of Utah on molecular compounds to control HIV had to be terminated because an Egyptian professor integral to the project was denied a visa when he tried to return to Utah after a sabbatical in Egypt.

The intensified scrutiny gives consular officers an incentive to request "security advisory opinions" from the State Department before issuing visas to foreign scientists, which can drag out the process indefinitely. House Republican Sherwood Boehlert, a member of the Intelligence Committee and chair of the House Committee on Science, has said he believes that the government's current run of visa delays and denials amounts to a crisis. A year ago, the White House announced that a new government panel would address the problem for visa applicants doing sensitive research. As The Hartford Courant has reported, the panel has yet to be set up.

Also last year, the Defense Department drafted a requirement that would have forced all university researchers funded by the Pentagon to get advance approval of publications based on their lab work. The proposed measures unleashed strong criticism, and the department withdrew them. But for academic research projects paid for by the Pentagon involving "sensitive, but unclassified" work, the department insisted on requiring universities to reduce the role of foreigners, prompting MIT to turn down a million-dollar grant rather than restrict participation.

The Bush Administration is treating American universities as if they can't be trusted to make their own judgments about restricting sensitive information, but the responsibility of balancing security and openness isn't a new one for academics. Ever since the Manhattan Project, centers of research have been required to weigh the interests of science and of national security cautiously and work with the government to guard both.

Before September 11, the government had respected the vigilance of universities by establishing what scientists call "high walls" around only "narrow areas" of research. Since then, the Administration has recalibrated the balance between security and liberty in this country, shifting the fulcrum in favor of security. But the lesson of SARS is that global security depends on allowing scientists to benefit from a free flow of ideas and from the easy cooperation of experts from home and abroad. After all, had the Chinese government not restricted the free flow of information within its borders, SARS might have been contained long before it became a global problem. Keeping secrets shouldn't be contagious.

Lincoln Caplan is the editor and president of Legal Affairs.

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