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MIT hosts AAAS colloquium examining secrecy in science

A few years ago, Brown University occupational physician David Kern investigated a mysterious lung disease affecting workers in a Rhode Island textile company.

When he decided to present his findings at a 1997 scientific meeting, he was told by the textile company and Brown-affiliated Memorial Hospital that he could not discuss his research because of a confidentiality agreement he had signed with the company when he was first called into the factory to look at one case of the illness, a year before he began his studies. After he spoke at the meeting, he was fired.

Dr. Kern, who is suing Brown for breach of contract, is one of the speakers from government, industry and academia at an all-day colloquium on secrecy in science to be held in Kresge Auditorium on Monday, March 29.

Also speaking will be Institute Professor and former CIA director John M. Deutch and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY).

Cosponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and MIT, the event will bring together individuals with expertise in health research, intellectual property and encryption to examine past and present issues in secrecy. The conference will address the historical context for secrecy in science and how it has changed from being enforced by the government to self-imposed at the institutional level.

Sen. Moynihan, who led the bipartisan Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy created by Congress in 1994, is the author of Secrecy: The American Experience, published in 1998. He will speak on "Secrecy and Information: A View from the Hill" from 9:10-9:45am. Professor Deutch will speak on "The Cultures of Universities, Industry and Governments" from 9:45-10:15am.

Dr. Kern will present his case study at 10:15am. At 1:45pm, molecular biologist Howard Schach-man from the University of California at Berkeley will examine the evolution of secrecy from national security mandates, to legal nondisclosure agreements to self-imposed secrecy by scientists.

From 11am-12:30pm and 3-5pm, there will be panels on industry and university relations. At the second, participants will include Susan Lederer from Penn State Medical School, who served on the DOE panel that looked at releasing documents related to radiation experiments; MIT cryptography expert Ronald Rivest, the Edwin S. Webster Professor of Computer Science and Engineering associate director of the Laboratory for Computer Science; and Scott McIntosh, an official from the Department of Justice. Mr. McIntosh will offer differing views on the government's regulation of cryptography, an issue now being litigated in three federal district courts.

At 2:30pm, Robert Cook-Deegan, director of the National Cancer Policy Board of the NAS, will speak on the dependence of technological advancement on the regular flow of information. At 5pm, Mary Good, president of Venture Capital Investors and president-elect of AAAS, will focus on what future issues might arise in the relationship between industry, government and universities.

Founded in 1848, AAAS represents the world's largest federation of scientists from a variety of disciplines and has more than 143,000 individual members. For more information or to register, contact Amy Crumpton at AAAS, (202) 326-6791,, or see the conference web site.

A version of this article appeared in the March 17, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 23).

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