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When should U.S. research be stamped ‘top secret’? NSF asks for a new look at the issue

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The U.S. academic community is gearing up for a new effort to convince national policymakers that the benefits of keeping government-funded basic research out in the open—and not stamping it classified—far outweigh any threat to national security from sharing scientific findings.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has asked the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) to hold a workshop on factors affecting the classification of federally funded research. Tentatively scheduled for the fall, the meeting is expected to revisit a Cold War-era policy that sets openness as the gold standard and says any classification of fundamental research should be kept to a minimum.

“Openness is axiomatic for scientists. But its value has not been articulated in a convincing way to the outside community,” says John Mester, CEO of the Universities Research Association, a consortium that runs several government laboratories and research facilities.

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But some academic leaders caution that the effort needs to be managed carefully to prevent it from backfiring. They note that China’s aggressive pursuit of emerging technologies has prompted calls from many lawmakers to cordon off basic research on some sensitive technologies, such as quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and biomedical techniques that could be used to produce bioweapons. A massive innovation bill now being negotiated by both chambers of Congress could be a vehicle for such additional restrictions on scientific collaborations and open publishing.

“I think we need to approach this with some trepidation,” says Richard Meserve, the former head of the Carnegie Institution for Science and co-chair of NASEM’s science, technology, and security roundtable, a forum for academic, government, and industry leaders. “This issue comes up periodically, and previous administrations have decided that they don’t want to open up this can of worms. But the fact that NSF has asked [NASEM to do this workshop] suggests that someone in the government thinks that it needs to be looked at.”

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NSF officials hope the NASEM workshop will assess whether to tweak the country’s historically open system of sharing research results to meet current geopolitical realities. “It will help us reflect on where we are now and talk with the community about ways to maintain openness and security,” says Rebecca Keiser, NSF’s chief of research security.

For the past 4 decades, striking that balance has meant minimal classification of basic research. In 1982, amid concerns the Soviet Union had expropriated U.S.-funded research to build up its military, a NASEM panel led by Dale Corson concluded that fundamental research should “remain unrestricted … to the maximum extent possible.” The Corson report paved the way for a 1985 policy statement from then=President Ronald Reagan, known as National Security Decision Directive 189 (NSDD-189), that established a policy often described as “putting up high walls around a very narrow set of technologies.”

Subsequent administrations have reaffirmed NSDD-189, saying it applies even when the country is under attack. “The free exchange of ideas [drives] innovation, prosperity, and U.S. national security,” then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in November 2001, only weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks fueled fears of more assaults from bioweapons or radioactive materials.

But minimal classification doesn’t mean none. In 2008, then- President George W. Bush alarmed many scientists by creating a new category of controlled but unclassified information, known as CUI. It has since been applied to a wide range of information collected by the federal government—including student, medical, and tax records, as well as census data—but not to the results of basic research. Barack Obama retained the CUI mechanism as president, although a 2010 executive order (13556) says classification should remain the primary means for restricting basic research.

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In 2019 NSF asked Jason, an independent body that advises the U.S. government, whether the Reagan directive needed to be updated. Not really, Jason concluded in a report that also looked at ways to increase compliance with federal rules on disclosing foreign sources of research support.

The Reagan directive doesn’t define what should be classified. The CUI list, meanwhile, has grown over the years to include more than 100 categories. But “confusion reigns” over exactly what kind of information falls into some of the CUI categories, noted the Jason report, which counseled against using CUI as a tool for restricting fundamental research.

The lack of a clear definition has created a gray area between classified and unclassified research that is problematic, say those who follow the issue. “The $64,000 question is: Do we need to be protecting more things?” Wendy Streitz, president of the Council on Governmental Relations, which tracks federal policies affecting the nation’s research universities, told the NASEM security roundtable this week.

Keiser hopes the upcoming NASEM workshop will take a step toward answering that question. “The JASON report remains extremely important,” she says. “But we need to expand on its findings [by hearing from] key experts in the community.” NSF hasn’t yet decided whether to ask NASEM to do a comprehensive study, Keiser adds.

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Tobin Smith, vice president for science policy at the 65-member Association of American Universities, hopes workshop participants will make the case for “why openness is so essential to U.S. innovation and national security. “I’m not sure that [Jason] got into those reasons,” he says. Publishing results not only fuels progress in U.S. science, he said, but also serves as “an early warning system” to flag important discoveries made elsewhere around the world.

The upshot of those conversations needs to be disseminated beyond the scientific community, Streitz told the roundtable. Congress, she said, “is where the message is desperately needed.”

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