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Science, Technology and the “Age of Terrorism”

The old saying was publish or perish. Scientists or academic researchers knew that peer review of their work was critical to gaining acceptance. But since September 11th, serious questions have arisen as to the appropriateness of certain types of research in general, and then the publication of sensitive but not classified information. This first became an issue for discussion when Dr. Mark Buller of St. Louis University and his team developed a vaccine resistant strain of mousepox in 2003 with funding from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Back then the question was whether the benefits of doing the research, especially when it came to especiallyparticularly virulent and new bio-terror agents, was prudent, and whether the publication of the results outweighed the potential for educated terrorists having the information and potentially being able to duplicate it.

This was discussed in the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) book, Biotechnology Research In An Age of Terrorism: Confronting the Dual Use Dilemma (note that this is the pre-publication proof of the book).

This book confronted the dual-use dilemma; there is a public good served by performing certain types of high-risk research in biotechnology while there is also the possibility that publication of the results of this research might “be subverted for misuse by hostile individuals or nations.” Without getting into the greater detail of this 100+ page report that I read preparing for a presentation I made in May 2004 on “Bioterrorism and Homeland Security,” the question was whether the publication of federally-funded research should be filtered through a review process to determine which sensitive information should not be published.

This issue was discussed in greater detail at a symposium of the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS), National Security and Biological Research: What Are the Boundaries? held on November 11, 2003 in which the balance between scientific integrity and law enforcement (national security) issues were discussed and debated.

In my opinion, it is worth the time to listen to and to follow the slides of the kick-off presentation by Ron Atlas, the dean of the graduate school and co-director for the Center for Deterrence of Biowarfare and Bioterrorism at the University of Louisville, Kentucky. Atlas was one of the architects of the NAS report touched on above.

At its core, Atlas’ presentation addresses the question about proposed bio-technological research, “Is it safe for human safety, and is it safe for potential misuse?”

  • "This not about censorship or saying to scientists, 'don't do this research,' or to the editors of scientific journals, 'don't publish this research."
  • "We need a dialogue among people who normally will not and do not speak to each other— in the national security community and on the front pages of Science, Nature, and beyond."
  • "This is not a problem that the United States can or should face alone."

A subsequent example of the “publish or not publish” issue arose in June 2005 when the federal government asked the National Academy of Sciences not to publish a research paper that feds describe as a "road map for terrorists" on how to contaminate the nation's milk supply.

It was initially posted on a password protected website designed to give journalists access to advance copies of articles slated for publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. However, some people who downloaded the paper asked the Food and Drug Administration for comment. The FDA in turn, addressed the issue with the Department of Health and Human Services, which asked the academy to stop the article's publication.

The paper "is a road map for terrorists and publication is not in the interests of the United States," HHS Assistant Secretary Stewart Simonson wrote in a letter to the science academy chief Dr. Bruce Alberts.

The paper gives "very detailed information on vulnerability nodes" in the milk supply chain and "includes ... very precise information on the dosage of botulinum toxin needed to contaminate the milk supply to kill or injure large numbers of people," Simonson wrote.

"It seems clear on its face that publication of this manuscript could have very serious public health and national security consequences."

So this brings us to the current timeframe. Of course, it is only five years since the NAS and NYAS reports. On October 18, 2007 a new report, Science and Security in a Post 9/11 World: A Report Based on Regional Discussions Between the Science and Security Communities was released.

This report addresses the question of how we reconcile heightened security measures adopted in the wake of 9/11 with the open and free international exchange of scientific experts and ideas.

The tragedy of September 11, 2001, the subsequent anthrax attacks, and ongoing terror threats internationally have markedly changed national and international security. As concerns about threats and terrorist activities have become global, so have the rapid transfer of information and communication. The confluence of the globalization of business and the revolution in information storage and transmittal has changed the landscape upon which to build national and international security. This requires a re-examination of the security measures developed during the days of the Cold War to assess whether those tools are still appropriate and to determine how they are affecting the current science and technology enterprises.

Among the key issues discussed in this report are:

  • The United States’ porous borders could allow terrorists to enter the country and attack U.S. citizens. Some of these terrorists might pose as (or in fact be) students in order to gain entry and find cover in a university community.
  • there is concern that terrorists might use U.S. advanced technology against us. The presence of dangerous pathogens or other research materials that could be used as weapons pose a potential vulnerability at some universities. Moreover, there is concern that terrorists aspiring to apply advanced technology to the development of weapons might develop the technical capability to do so through a university education.
  • a more generalized concern is present about state actors and their access to advanced technologies of military significance. That is, because the U.S. military edge is built on the skillful application of advanced technology, there is concern that other countries might benefit militarily from access to scientific or technical information available in the university environment.
  • concerns are present arising from the reality 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.

This is another audio file well worth the time to listen to for those concerned about the policy debates over sharing of sensitive scientific knowledge.

To strengthen the essential role that science and technology play in maintaining national and economic security, the United States should ensure the open exchange of unclassified research despite the small risk that it could be misused for harm by terrorists or rogue nations, says a new report by the National Research Council.

Again, the question is “sensitive but not classified information,” and how or whether to share it around the world. Congress wanted to re-look at the question of balancing science and security. The report is discussed in greater detail in a recent issue of the Homeland Security Daily Wire.

According to an article written by John Timmer of ArsTechnica, National Academies tackles international science in the age of terrorism, the report:

1) views the continued exchange of scientific expertise as an essential component of national security;

2) calls for efforts to smooth and simplify the handling of research-related security concerns;

3) strongly supports a continuation of an environment within the US that promotes the international exchange of science, arguing that it's essential for continued US leadership in science:

"Foreign-born scientists and engineers come to the United States, stay in large numbers, and make significant contributions to America's ability to achieve and maintain technological and economic leadership. Given the current diminishing rates of new scientific and engineering talent in the United States—the subject of other reports and a topic of national concern—the size of the US research and development effort cannot be sustained without a significant and steady infusion of foreign nationals."

Further, the NAS report argues that the United States relies on technological and financial superiority for much of its military and security activities, and a reduction of scientific activity would adversely affect both of these. Examined by the committee were clauses in federal contracts and grants that restrict the use of foreign researchers, decisions to limit scientific publications on sensitive topics, the restrictions imposed by "sensitive but unclassified" designations, and the management of biological information and agents.

One of the more interesting observations made in the current NAS report is that many of the potentially dangerous biological technologies are either developed or spread internationally. And further, given that a basic education in molecular biology is sufficient for someone to develop dangerous biological materials, although not a specific purpose of the Report, it suggested that the United States adopt more generous and liberal immigration policies (“free movement of human capital"). Essentially, rather than keeping foreign scientists out of the country, make it easier for them to enter, all as a means of increasing security.

All of this is placed against the backdrop of the 2008 report by the Battelle Memorial Institute that makes it clear that the U.S. is losing its global R&D dominance; in a decade or so, global R&D will be roughly equally divided among the U.S., Europe, and India-China; U.S. benefits from European, Asian companies outsourcing their R&D to U.S. labs.

There is growing equalization of R&D activity occurring in parallel with declining U.S. dominance, with outsourcing and offshoring growing in significance. "The U.S. will continue to dominate for up to the next 10 years or so, but after that decade activity is likely to be split into thirds with North America, the European Union and Asia -- dominated by China and India -- holding approximately equal shares," the report concluded. In addition, outsourcing and offshoring of R&D is increasing, with the U.S. leading the trend. Conversely, the EU and Asia are increasingly offshoring R&D to the United States in order to be in a better position to enhance their market shares. Indeed, the United States is benefiting from the continued in-sourcing of R&D. "The globalization of R&D will continue to grow, and competition for research funds will become more intense," said Jules Duga, a senior researcher at Battelle and an expert on R&D trends.

The issue is no longer the simplistic “publish or perish.” Dealing with scientific discoveries and advancements at a time when the free flow of information and access to reports, even perhaps those reports contained in this entry, is open to almost anyone with a computer and an Internet connection is problematic. Allowing sensitive information on new discoveries to travel free around the World in a matter of seconds leads to the very real question of National security versus freedom of speech issues (or at least issues of extreme censorship).