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Stanford Report, May 24, 2000

Faculty Essay: Closing our scientific community won’t enhance security

One in an occasional series of essays written by faculty members in their areas of academic expertise

U.S. defense R&D has outdistanced the world. It's also the most open in the world. There is a connection. U.S. defense scientists and engineers interact with the best in research and development around the world and hire the best regardless of national origin, including, in nonsensitive positions, foreign nationals. Immigrants, refugees, foreign-born citizens have been welcomed into the most secret circles of classified research and development and their management. From World War II to this day, they have made pivotal contributions, specifically in the fields of nuclear weapons and missile technologies, the two fields where openness is currently under attack.

In addition, the U.S. has repeatedly told the world what it was doing and why. We have taken the lead in sponsoring international meetings, arms control measures and other initiatives that require international technical interaction. We have sent our cleared scientists and engineers all over the world.

It might seem to some as if the U.S. were allowing others to catch up. But, if so, why haven't they caught up? Not only have the others not caught up, they have fallen further and further behind, not in civilian technologies but in defense technologies. Why did the Soviet Union, with its large spying apparatus, which probably dwarfs what China is doing, its extensive secrecy and its very large investments in defense, never come close? Visiting the Soviet Union showed barriers between laboratories and design bureaus, barriers between ministries, between cleared and uncleared scientists. It was very difficult for Soviet scientists and engineers to talk to each other, let alone with foreigners. In part, as a result, they wound up not taking advantage of their best ideas. Let's not adopt the Soviet approach here.

Openness breeds review and competition within the United States. Openness to both scientists and lay people has had its usual healthy results of exposing proposals and projects to general critique. Missteps and false starts made the headlines, and well they should. The relentless, open criticism of mistakes and failures is part of the reason for the U.S. success.

The nature of the scientific and technological world today greatly enhances the strength of these arguments. In many areas relevant to defense, the civilian R&D today outpaces the defense research and development. Nor is this trend going to reverse itself. More and better-funded people work on all phases of civilian -- but defense-relevant -- research and technologies in the United States and abroad. It is essential for the weapons laboratories to support the changing science and technology base of the classified projects and to retain and hire good scientists and engineers.

No country can be isolated today, especially not China. China is not the old Soviet Union. It is far more disparate and decentralized, more rapidly changing and open to the world and offers far more opportunities for American influence. Getting China right is essential if we are to wield that influence effectively. The Cox report, with its picture of a monolithic, military-dominated China, did not help get it right.

Because the United States is ahead, it will be spied on by many nations. Secrets must be protected and spies sent to jail, but that can be done without isolating our scientists. Indeed, none of the spy cases that were solved recently would have been prevented or more easily resolved by isolating scientists and engineers. Spy scares must not cast a shadow on all foreign contacts by U.S. scientists and engineers involved with nuclear matters and satellites. Yet that's happening.

We must keep the winning formula in defense research and development and in commercial satellites, and we must have a realistic view of China. It will take thought, planning and political courage to do these things without giving in to either hysteria or laxness. A time when the rest of the world as well as our own commercial sector have become more competitive in the very areas that matter for defense is not the time to isolate the defense science and technology communities. There is no need to overlook other countries' efforts to develop their military capabilities, sometimes by spying on us. There is no need either to abandon a system that has served us extremely well under much more dangerous conditions than the present ones because other countries do improve their military capabilities and occasionally spy on us.

Michael May, research professor emeritus of management science and engineering, is the editor of the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation assessment of the 1999 Cox committee report on Chinese spying written by a House committee chaired by Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Newport Beach. This commentary was adapted from a speech May gave May 6 to the Committee of 100, a national public policy group made up of Chinese American leaders. The excerpt appeared in the May 10 issue of the Los Angeles Times.