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Vest's report urges security, openness

How can the United States remain secure against terrorism while maintaining the openness needed for the advancements in science and technology that sustain our economy and well-being?

It will require a careful balance, President Charles M. Vest said Wednesday in his annual report, titled "Response and Responsibility: Balancing Security and Openness in Research and Education." The complete text is available on the web.

"The future health, economic strength and quality of life in America, and indeed the world, depend on the continued rapid advance of science and technology and on the education of scientists and engineers at the most advanced levels," he wrote.

"The rapid progress of science and technology and the advanced education of scientists and engineers, in turn, depend critically on openness of process, openness of publication and openness of participation within our institutions and across national boundaries."

Now, in the wake of Sept. 11, said Vest, "we must not unintentionally disable the quality and rapid evolution of American science and technology, or of advanced education, by closing their various boundaries."

He noted that "MIT and our sister institutions take very seriously our responsibility to serve our nation by applying our talents and capabilities to the protection of human life and infrastructure in our homeland and throughout the world."

The balance between security and openness, he said, depends on effective dialogue and close collaboration between the government and the leaders of the scientific, engineering and higher education communities.

"During the past 12 months, such a dialogue has begun and in general has proceeded well," Vest wrote. "Nonetheless, the underlying sense of partnership is fragile and is vulnerable to political winds that can shift in a moment."

Vest observed that "the nebulous, diffuse nature of terrorism makes a simple prescription for the responsibilities of academic institutions impossible."


Vest noted that a matter of current debate and legislation is the degree to which universities should remain open to international students and scholars.

He noted that America relies greatly on scientists and engineers who have come here from other countries. In American industry, for example, one-third of the science and engineering Ph.D.s were born elsewhere, and most came to this country as graduate students.

"The openness of U.S. research universities to foreign students and scholars," he said, "has been overwhelmingly successful in building the excellence of our institutions, enhancing the educational experience of our students, contributing to American industry and academia, advancing nations around the world, and disbursing good will toward and understanding of our system and values."

With regard to the division of labor between universities and the government on this question, Vest said that after international students have been admitted to study at a U.S. university, U.S. consular officers around the world must have the responsibility for judging the appropriateness of issuing a visa to each such student.

Once students arrive in this country, he said, they should be allowed full access to the courses and publications generally available on the campus.

On the question of tracking international students, he said that universities are in broad agreement that they should maintain and provide to the government fundamental "directory information" including whether each individual is enrolled and what area of study he or she is pursuing.


Regarding scientific materials, Vest wrote that universities have the responsibility not to be a source of materials that could be used by those who would do harm. "Access to pathogens and dangerous chemicals must be carefully restricted and monitored in the normal course of doing science.

"It is the further responsibility of universities to educate all of their research and laboratory students about security issues regarding their materials and equipment. This should be integrated with education and training regarding the health, safety, and environmental responsibilities of laboratory practice. Things as basic as not working alone in chemical and biological laboratories must be reinforced," he said.


Vest said the publication of scientific information poses a critical challenge, because "openness is so essential to America's basic principles, to the excellence of our universities, and to the conduct of science."


Vest offered three suggestions for the resolution of the issues of select agents in the life sciences, sensitive areas of study and publication of scientific information.

"First, consultation by the federal government with the academic and scientific communities is essential ... As pointed out with great clarity by John J. Hamre, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense, all too often security professionals do not understand or trust scientists, and scientists may be quite unaware of some of some real risks associated with their work ...

"Second, distinct boundaries must be drawn where it actually is possible and appropriate. It is the ambiguity and uncertainty of what is inappropriate to publish, or in the use by the government of ill-defined terms like 'sensitive but unclassified,' that creates danger for the scientific enterprise and invites bad decisions ...

"Third, we should not underestimate the power of voluntary agreements within the scientific community," said Vest. He cited the following precedents.

"In the war years preceding the development of the atomic bomb, Allied scientists stopped publishing research associated with uranium physics, although they continued to discuss the topic privately among themselves. And when recombinant DNA first became possible, leading scientists, led by David Baltimore, established a moratorium on their work, pending open discussion among themselves and a wide range of lay people to establish standards. Work and open publication proceeded smoothly thereafter. Neither of these examples provides a direct guidance for the less focused situation we face today, but the point is that the scientists themselves, in consultation with many others as appropriate, found an effective path forward."

Vest concluded, "traditional American values of openness in education and research must prevail. But this will be possible only if we in research universities contribute our talents to maintaining the security of our homeland, and if the federal government and academia maintain a respectful, substantive and effective dialogue between those who do science and those who are charged with protecting the nation."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 9, 2002.

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