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University leaders oppose creating vague new level of secrecy in scientific research

University leaders have criticized government proposals designed to establish a vague new level of secrecy in scientific research. They told a Congressional committee that labeling some university research as "sensitive" but not "classified" could be counterproductive to development of new scientific discoveries and economic growth.

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., chair of the House Science Committee, opened the Oct. 10 hearing on "Conducting Research During the War on Terrorism: Balancing Openness and Security" with a strong statement supporting the open university system.

Boehlert also asked the witnesses, "Is sensitive but unclassified research legitimate?" All four witnesses, including White House science advisor John Marburger, said no.

Institute Professor Sheila Widnall, a former secretary of the Air Force, told the House Science Committee that establishing "sensitive research as a halfway house of restriction is doomed to failure."

M.R.C. Greenwood, the chancellor of the University of California at Santa Cruz and a former associate director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Ronald Atlas, president of the American Society for Microbiology and dean of the graduate school of the University of Louisville, agreed.

Widnall noted that the physical science and engineering community "has 50 years of experience dealing with the relationship between basic research and its national security applications. There is a well-developed institutional framework within government agencies for considering and carrying out the management of these issues. Members of the scientific community are active participants in providing scientific advice to these government agencies in carrying out this mission and in evaluating the quality of the scientific work carried out in this environment.

"In contrast, the biological and health science community has little history to guide them through the current debates," Widnall said.

Widnall said the excellence of science requires openness as well as the criticism and peer evaluation of research scientists and engineers.

"Cut off from such criticism and challenge, science deteriorates; subject to political rather than scientific judgments, it produces fads, junk science and wishful thinking. Our strong belief is that students must be educated in this open environment to insure the highest quality of their educational experience," she said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 23, 2002.

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