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National Academies urge current secrecy rules for anti-terror research

The presidents of the national academies of science, engineering and medicine said Friday the scientific community should work closely with federal agencies to research ways to combat new national security threats. They urged the government to refrain from creating vague categories of "sensitive but unclassified" information that "inevitably" stifles scientific creativity and weakens national security.

The statement on "Science and Security in an Age of Terrorism" - by Bruce Alberts, William Wulf, and Harvey Fineberg, the presidents of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and the Institute of Medicine - was the latest action by scientists concerned that government actions could damage the science needed to combat terrorism.

Election to membership in the academies is considered one of the highest U.S. honors that can be accorded a scientist, engineer, or health professional. More than one hundred members of the MIT faculty have been elected.

The presidents of the academies said, "This community recognizes that it has a clear responsibility to protect the United States, as it has in the past, by harnessing the best science and technology to help counter terrorism and other national security threats.

"In meeting this responsibility, the scientific, engineering, and health research community also recognizes a need to achieve an appropriate balance between scientific openness and restrictions on public information.

"Restrictions are clearly needed to safeguard strategic secrets; but openness also is needed to accelerate the progress of technical knowledge and enhance the nation's understanding of potential threats.

"A successful balance between these two needs -- security and openness -- demands clarity in the distinctions between classified and unclassified research.

"We believe it to be essential that these distinctions not include poorly defined categories of 'sensitive but unclassified' information that do not provide precise guidance on what information should be restricted from public access.

"Experience shows that vague criteria of this kind generate deep uncertainties among both scientists and officials responsible for enforcing regulations.

"The inevitable effect is to stifle scientific creativity and to weaken national security."

They called on the scientific, engineering, and health research community to work closely with the federal government to determine which research may be related to possible new security threats and to develop principles for researchers in each field.

They said the federal government should affirm and maintain the general principle of National Security Decision Directive 189, issued in 1985: "No restrictions may be placed upon the conduct or reporting of federally funded fundamental research that has not received national security classification, except as provided in applicable U.S. statutes."

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