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Brad FitzpatrickScience and technology have been enlisted in the fight against terrorism. The US Department of Homeland Security is investing over $1 billion per year in R&D. The National Institutes of Health is devoting even more, nearly 6% of its $28 billion R&D budget. US universities, national laboratories, and industrial R&D establishments all have become involved. While the nation is calling on the scientific community to serve these vital missions, it is also implementing poli

By | May 24, 2004

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Brad Fitzpatrick

Science and technology have been enlisted in the fight against terrorism. The US Department of Homeland Security is investing over $1 billion per year in R&D. The National Institutes of Health is devoting even more, nearly 6% of its $28 billion R&D budget. US universities, national laboratories, and industrial R&D establishments all have become involved. While the nation is calling on the scientific community to serve these vital missions, it is also implementing policies that could cause serious, long-term damage to the science and technology enterprise.

These policies have affected the ability and willingness of foreign students and visitors to come to the United States to study or work. They've affected how we handle biological agents in our laboratories, how we regard scientific publications, and how we treat sensitive information. They've affected the conditions that federal agencies attach to contracts and sometimes to grants. And they've affected the atmosphere in university labs and government installations.

The issue of foreign visitors probably has received the most attention. Accounts of lengthy delays and denials in visa processing abound. International scientific meetings, traditionally held in the United States, have reportedly shifted to other, more welcoming venues. Recent reports indicate substantial declines in the numbers of foreign students applying to US universities and corresponding increases in other English-speaking countries.

This is a major headache for science and the nation. The United States has benefited enormously from the influx of foreign students and scientists. Nearly 40% of US engineering faculty, one-third of US Nobelists in science, and one-quarter of National Academy of Sciences members are foreignborn. And many more leading scientists around the world received their PhDs or did postdocs in the US. Their continuing connections with US researchers and the goodwill they carry home are invaluable, though intangible, assets for us.

There are encouraging signs that this problem is receiving attention at the top levels of government. John H. Marburger III, science adviser to President Bush, and his staff at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) have devoted considerable attention to the visa issue. Secretary of State Colin Powell, testifying on April 21 before the House Judiciary Committee, declared, "America must continue to be a magnet for enterprising minds from around the world."

But other impacts of new security policies are not receiving the same level of attention. In a recent survey by a task force of the Association of American Universities (AAU) and the Council on Government Relations, universities reported that federal agencies are placing a growing number of restrictive clauses in awards for unclassified basic research projects. These include restrictions on publication and participation of foreign nationals. The survey found 138 instances of such clauses in awards negotiated at 20 major research universities during a recent six-month period, representing an estimated one-fifth of all contracts received by these institutions during the interval.

The clauses appear to violate an executive order from the mid-1980s that requires government agencies to either classify sensitive information or allow it to be publicly available. The largest number comes, not surprisingly, from the Department of Defense, but universities also reported instances of awards involving NASA, the Department of Health and Human Services, and even the National Science Foundation. OSTP is currently reviewing the report.

Another part of the picture involves new rules and regulations regarding the handling of potentially dangerous chemical and biological agents that stipulate criminal penalties for violations. No one denies that we must keep these materials out of dangerous hands. But implementing the new regulations is another administrative burden for universities, driving some researchers and institutions to abandon valuable lines of research and, in some cases, to destroy collections of laboratory agents that could be critical for understanding and developing defenses against biological weapons, in order to avoid compliance headaches.

Many scientific, engineering, and academic organizations are responding to these issues. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, with the AAU, recently initiated an effort to coordinate the activities of there organizations, help them work together, and speak with one voice. This effort deserves wide support. It is essential that, as we bolster our defenses against terrorism, we also ensure that the US research enterprise does not become victim of 9–11.

Albert H. Teich is the director of science and policy programs for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, DC.

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