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Government’s need for secrecy collides with academia’s need for openness

Many scientists want to work on the important national security problems facing the new, post-Sept. 11 world.

But most can’t do that work at their own college campuses. That’s because many universities strictly limit classified research, fearing its strictly imposed restrictions will interfere with the free sharing of ideas that makes them so successful.

“Universities want to be good citizens and assist in the public defense,” said Lawrence Coleman, the University of California’s vice provost for research and a physics professor at UC Davis. “On the other hand, we have this culture of the open environment, and that is what collides with classified research.”

Those restrictions have fueled a still-growing debate about the role of secret research at the country’s universities, home to many of its most talented scientists and engineers.

Major research institutions like MIT are reconsidering restrictions on campus-based classified work in light of the renewed patriotic surge, and an associated boost in defense funding.

In contrast, faculty at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, which allows such research but hasn’t seen much in reality, is considering a move to effectively ban classified work after the university’s geophysics department agreed to conduct national missile defense-related experiments.

Stanford University is solid in its stance that classified work has no place on a university campus. The University of California system has no hard rules on classified research, but its strict policies requiring publication of research results and inclusion of all interested researchers, no matter their home country, have essentially eliminated the work on most of its campuses.

Neither Stanford nor the University of California stops its faculty members from doing classified work on their own time, if they go to places like national laboratories, industry institutes or agency headquarters in Washington. In fact, after Sept. 11, many campuses, including UC Berkeley, are giving their professors special leave or more flexible work schedules to pursue this important work.

“Secrecy has got a real place. The balance between secrecy and science has to be maintained when government work has to been done,” said Sidney Drell, former deputy director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center who has spent decades advising the government on nuclear weapons and other security matters. “It is a very sensitive and difficult line.”

Drell, like most others interviewed, feels strongly that classified research has no place on campus because it will inevitably interfere with a university’s ultimate mission: education.

“I think one of the important things not to do on campus is erect barriers because it gets in the way of discovery,” said Shankar Sastry, chair of UC Berkeley’s engineering and computer science department who once led a division of the Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. “It is important for faculty and students to engage in a national security agenda, but that does not translate into doing classified research on campus.”

Even with this policy, though, universities still run into gray areas that aren’t strictly classified but still inhibit the ideal free and open debate.

For example, some grant givers ask to review publications or restrict foreign scientists or graduate students from working on their projects.

This has become especially onerous in the area of satellite-based basic science. Several years ago, all satellites – including those used for basic research – were placed on a list of items controlled by the State Department.

While the regulations say there is leniency for academic research, scientists could still be fined, or worse, for providing basic scientific information to people from the wrong country – even if that information is available on the Internet or has been published in a research journal. Further, universities are loath to get involved in something that may require them to register as a munitions dealer.

“The unintended consequences of this are drastic,” said Rachel Claus, who has worked on this issue as general legal counsel for the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

“It is just a very scary environment that we live in right now for those of us in the community that are involved in spacecraft and satellites. These are unusual times, and we need to be gravely concerned about what can be used against us.”

Because of these restrictions, much satellite research and occasionally other research is being rejected.

“If push comes to shove, we say no,” Coleman said.

Many universities agree to lesser restrictions, like a short waiting period before publication from both industry and defense researchers. But some people are worried that even that concession is cutting into academic freedom.

Universities weren’t always as leery of classified research. During World War II and immediately after, scientists and the government had a very close relationship. But soon the conflict between secrecy and openness arose.

Classified work requires locks, fences and gates that most universities just don’t have. It usually limits publications and collaborations with foreign scientists, something many freedom-loving professors and education-hungry students don’t readily accept.

“There is an uneasy relationship, to put it mildly, between secrecy and research,” Claus explained. “You get the best research where people can test theories and butt heads.”

Universities handled this in different ways. A few continued to allow it on campus, but most either eliminated it altogether or created off-campus laboratories where scientists could do their own work. Only one UC campus, the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, has a classified research area. Stanford has one area with classified documents, but no area for such research.

“The challenge we face is how can we help and do our part in national security problems and at the same time preserve what makes us special,” said Paul Gray, executive vice chancellor and provost at UC Berkeley.

Many scientists point out that the Department of Defense already funds open research on campuses, and that is not changing.

“The point is that DOD still understands that open research moves faster than classified research,” said UC Berkeley mechanical engineer Albert Pisano, who has several defense grants he and his graduate students can work on in his campus lab.

“Faculty can pursue their research interests, but not exactly in the environment they would choose.”

Berkeley has already allowed many professors, especially biologists, to take an extended leave to work on national security problems. Gray expects more accommodations and hard decisions will have to be made as scientists are called on to do more to fight terrorism.

“The key things are to maintain the free flow of information to the greatest extent possible,” Gray said. “I think we will need to make some important decisions.”