The Journal of Philosophy, Science & Law

Manuscripts and Articles

Volume 2, January 2002

Balancing Scientific Freedom and National Security after September 11th*

Michelle R. Detwiler**


*Based on “The War on Terrorism: What Does it Mean for Science?”; a symposium sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Project on Scientific Freedom and National Security, cosponsored by the AAAS Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, December 18, 2001.

**AAAS Program on Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law


An audience of approximately 300 scientists, professors, government employees, and other citizens gathered in Washington, D.C. for a public symposium to examine scientists’ responsibilities and what they can expect from their government in post-September 11thAmerica. Potential conflicts of interest relating to scientific liberty and human rights balanced against concerns of national security were the focus of the all day event.

What are scientists’ and technologists’ responsibilities in the United States following the events of September 11th? According to Eric Drexler, Director of the Foresight Institute, scientists have a responsibility to consider the consequences of the technology they develop. By nature of their unique understanding of the technical potentials of their research, it is the responsibility of the individual to make systematic predictions of the dangers and the opportunities of new technology. Advances in nanotechnology, for example, can lead to improvements in medical technology, wealth-creation and computational technology. However, nanotech advances also can make acts of bioterrorism more possible. Because scientific communities pursue scientific and technological advancement, it is the responsibility of these communities to develop networks of individuals to discuss the implications of their research.

Jonathan D. Moreno, Director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Virginia, echoed Drexler’s recommendations and added that disinterested parties should also be present at discussions concerning the consequences of new technologies. In addition, Moreno detailed the history of past abuses against human research subjects during times of war and spoke to the scientist’s responsibility to uphold human rights even in times of immense pressure to guarantee national security. Perhaps his advice is well warranted in the wake of the December 20, 2001, article in The Washington Post that explains postal workers’ confusion over the federal government’s advice to get anthrax vaccines on an experimental basis. The recommendation was considered a hasty one in the absence of a scientific consensus about the risks that the vaccines pose to human health, and local health officials were cautioning against getting the three-shot vaccine regimen. Under pressure for improved national security and public health integrity, such actions might represent a weakening of human subject research rights during the War on Terrorism.

Moreno also cautioned against the misallocation of scientific talent. He questioned the responsibility of the scientific community to focus overwhelming priority on six cases of anthrax versus the thousands of other deadly cases of more common infectious diseases. Moreno suggested that this diversion might hinder the pursuit of scientific knowledge, which could ultimately prove crucial in the challenge to prevent future threats to national security. In contrast, an audience member later emphasized that an improved understanding of anthrax now, through intense research, might positively affect our ability to manage a more wide spread outbreak in the future.

Muslim-American Rashid A. Chotani, senior scientist at the Applied Physics Laboratory and professor in the public health department at Johns Hopkins University, reemphasized what many of the other speakers underscored; science is practiced globally. Because the scientific pursuit is an international value and an international endeavor, American scientists have a responsibility to work with other countries to assist in improving health science and security. Louis W. Goodman, Dean of the School of International Service at American University, stressed that there are currently more than 600,000 international students in higher education in the U.S. If concerns of national security compromise the ability of foreign students to attend American universities by imposing and enforcing greater restrictions on obtaining Visas, for example, this would curtail research advancement. American universities rely on undergraduate, doctoral, and postdoctoral student researchers who work long hours on projects that may eventually get published in leading scientific journals. The U.S. scientific research community depends on the contributions of these researchers to serve the needs of this country and to advance scientific understanding in the international community.

William A. Wulf, President of the National Academy of Engineering, called attention to the responsibility of scientists in their continued pursuit of knowledge. He suggested that while scientific information should not be exploited in a detrimental way, the exploration of all knowledge should be valued. John H. Marburger III, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), reiterated that the pursuit of science “will not take a windfall” and will not be diverted, as was the case during World War II. Priorities for funding of the scientific enterprise as it currently operates will largely remain unchanged. If scientists have ideas about contributing their expertise in the fight against terrorism, they are encouraged to draft grants and submit them by the normal channels for review. Marburger concluded his address calling upon the science journalism community to accept their responsibility to educate the public about scientific subjects such as engineering. Encouraging young people to study these issues, and educating the larger community about the benefits of engineering technology, for example, will improve the pool of scientific researchers and support for public policy initiatives essential to homeland security.

What should the scientific and technical community expect from their government as the United States fights this so-called war on terrorism? Marburger stressed increased vulnerabilities in academic research. In the wake of general concern regarding potential restrictions on scientific liberty in the name of national security, Marburger assured the audience that the Bush administration understands the necessity of freedom for the practice of science. However, as OSTP provides scientific support for the new Office of Homeland Security, the office’s main concern is exploitation at universities. Marburger echoed a fear that the trust and openness inherent to the scientific community might allow sensitive scientific or technical knowledge to be exploited for unintended uses by ill-intentioned persons within or outside the university system. As a result, lawyer Robert O’Neil of the University of Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, says we should expect increased regulations regarding laboratory security. Inventory checks, inspection, and the baring of foreign scientists from working with certain materials is likely to become more routine in U.S. research institutions. There might be cause for concern as the current legal framework provides only modest guidance if new lab regulations become intolerable.

Do governmental scientific findings deserve constitutional protection? O’Neil says that the answer is largely, no. In many cases, the government has a legal right to withhold information essential to national security. After September 11th, some 15 federal agencies have in some way modified their web sites, for example, to preclude “sensitive” information that might fall into the wrong hands. Even physical storage media for scientific information have received increased restriction by the government. On October 12th, the United States Geological Survey asked Federal Depository Libraries to destroy a CD-ROM publication concerning large public surface water supplies.

The scientific community can also expect to see an emphasis on certain areas of scientific research in the fight against terrorism. Both Wulf and Marburger stressed that social and behavioral research will be necessary to understand Islamic values. Anne A. Witkowsky is the Director of the Commission on Science and Security, which examines the integration of sound security measures with scientific missions of the Energy Department’s national laboratories. Witkowsky noted that social science research might be effectively used for pattern analysis on individuals suspected of terrorist intentions. Other areas of focus will include bioterrorism research, aimed to prevent an attack against U.S. food supplies, and research on computer security.

Marburger stressed a need for practical applications of current scientific knowledge. Accordingly, turning known scientific phenomenon into engineered products, such as using irradiation technologies to screen mail, might be key to solving potential terrorists threats. The need to bolster the public health system was also mentioned as a high priority.

From this symposium, one is left to conclude that an environment of scientific discovery will continue to be fostered but that new areas of research will be essential in fighting terrorism. Marburger suggests that current scientific research will not be diverted inordinately. Who then, will do the new research that is required? Government scientists outside of academia? If there is a demand for new scientific and technical research, there will also be a need for trained scientists. Perhaps it is premature to panic the scientific community with a call to arms. It is likely, at least for the foreseeable future, that scientists will to act in accordance with their preferred personal initiatives when deciding to pursue research applicable to the fight against terrorism. Or since they may have relevant expertise, scientists might be approached individually by government sources.

The global scientific community cherishes its freedoms, including the freedom to engage in the scientific enterprise and share its results. We are not yet so quick to relinquish those freedoms, especially for a national security that appears to be beyond simple answers. Witkowsky suggests that sound security and excellence in science can be balanced. As she asserts, to prevent unnecessary restrictions on scientific freedom, sound security should involve increased sophistication of intelligence, not increased general surveillance.

While the symposium raised many timely and important issues, several questions relating to how scientific freedom should be balanced against concerns of national security remain. For instance, what if a social scientist objects to the use of his research in a war that he does not support? Or, the patriot who asks why there is not a government call to arms for scientific research on alternative energy resources? Entertaining these and other valid concerns as they arise will undoubtedly require the continued diligence of the scientific community that is affected by an elusive enemy on foreign and homeland soil alike.


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