Science Sunday: Security vs. Openness in the Post-9/11 World

The National Academy of Sciences says freedom makes us safer.Since the airliners hit the twin towers on September 11, 2001, a regular refrain in the debate on America’s future has been: How much freedom should we surrender to try to ensure our security?

This choice is often unstated but implied, like the debate over the USA Patriot Act, the issue of detention of citizens and non-citizens, or the willingness to be patted down at the the airport security line.

Sometimes the debate is overt. A couple of years ago, an oil company sponsored an essay contest on exactly that topic. And this week the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science dealt directly with this issue in a report entitled Science and Security in a Post 9/11 World.

Science thrives on the free exchange of ideas among individuals, institutions, across borders. The NAS tried to find out whether …

“… concerns about our country’s need to protect itself from terrorist threats had resulted in policy changes that were altering our ability to attract the best and brightest scientists and engineers and to undertake and conduct leading-edge research.”

The issue is whether the U.S. should reduce its transmission of scientific findings to the scientists of other countries, and restrict the access of foreigners to our schools.

The concerns of the security community were considered important and were taken seriously by the committee that prepared the report — which included Gary Hart Former U.S. Senator (D-Colo.), and Wirth Professor of Public Policy University of Colorado.

These concerns were: that terrorists posing a s students (or actual students who were also terrorists) would come to the U.S. and harm citizens; that terrorists might use the country’s own advanced technology against us; that enemy states might gain a technical advantage by access to scientific and technical information; and “that America’s economic well-being is founded on the maintenance of its scientific and technological edge and that foreign countries could seek to penetrate U.S. universities (as well as U.S. businesses) for the purpose of obtaining early access to technology in order to supplant U.S. capabilities and reap the economic gains for themselves.”

So the NAS got the input of many of the agencies involved in national security — the Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Department, the military services, the National Security Agency and so on — along with universities and researchers to try to determine what restrictions on the free flow of scientific information would benefit the security of the U.S.

And considering the players — the national security world, bristling with yellow alerts, secrets and classified information and the usually timid, grant-hungry university world — it is surprising to hear that the answer generally favors freedom, not restriction. In the words of the report:

“Interestingly, even with such a divergent range of committee expertise and speaker/participant input, an overwhelming consensus was apparent that to keep the country secure and to maintain our freedoms, we must strive to keep U.S. universities open- welcoming students and scholars from around the world and participating in international  research.”

In fact, the report concludes that the free flow of information actually favors the United States in its quest for safety. Because our technology and research are so advanced, we are better able to make use of the information that flows to us than a potential enemy is.

Take, for instance, the case of potential biological hazards. Previously technically unsophisticated nations or groups could conceivably learn enough from open-source scientific information to acquire and use dangerous biological materials against U.S. citizens. Remember anthrax?

But the NAS concludes that work on these issues is being done elsewhere. The U.S. is not the only — in many cases not even the major — source of research on many potentially dangerous materials. By allowing the free flow of information, the U.S. is in a better position to counter these potential threats, protecting our citizens.

In other words, freedom is good for us. It makes us safer. So the next time the debate of freedom versus security comes up, we can point to the NAS report as an argument that more freedom means more security.

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