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Stanford Report, May 31, 2000

Faculty Essay: Security restrictions on research: a case of déjà vu


It is strange how often history repeats itself and stranger still how often our memories fail to record its lessons. An excellent story (Stanford Report, May 24) details how new applications (misapplications would be more accurate) of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or ITAR, have barred Stanford scientists from participation in fundamental university research if they come from certain countries. What that account omits is that this has happened before, right here at Stanford, in almost exactly the same way after exaggerated claims about thefts of secrets produced a national political overreaction. Stanford was closely involved in the steps that led, ultimately, to the Reagan Executive Order of 1985 that ended the previous bout of nonsense. That story is worth telling for the lessons it may provide in the current episode.

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Well before 1985 -- late in 1981, actually -- the Department of State (and the Department of Commerce, which had overlapping responsibilities) began applying ITAR and EAR (Export Administration Regulations), not just to military hardware and specifications but to basic research data as well. As a consequence, scientific visitors were prohibited from attending symposia and meetings at which such research findings were discussed, and their university hosts were held responsible for guaranteeing that the guests would not be exposed to certain kinds of unclassified projects. This would have put Stanford in the ridiculous position of having to monitor the travels of Soviet visitors around laboratories here and there in the Santa Clara Valley to make sure they weren't seeing things they weren't supposed to. Obviously, the role of Intourist lab-cop wasn't very appealing. Jerry Lieberman, then vice provost for research and graduate studies and later Stanford's provost, was as concerned as I, and we began to work the problem together.

The Department of Defense obviously had a significant role in this business, because it involved research in which the department was interested, both because it sponsored much of the work and because it had a security interest in keeping some of the work secret. At the time, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering was Dick DeLauer, once upon a time a catcher on the Stanford baseball team. He and I co-chaired something called the DoD-Universities Forum, a committee of sorts that had been put together to improve relationships between the academic community and the Defense Department on just such issues.

DeLauer understood the problem quite well and wanted to be helpful. The assistant secretary in charge of policy at Defense, Richard Perle, understood it just as well -- but, unfortunately, he did not share our view at all. (Indeed, in a subsequent debate with me at the Washington Press Club, he demanded to know why universities like Stanford wouldn't take classified research!) The struggle within Defense, of course, took place out of my sight, but Secretary Weinberger apparently sided with DeLauer. In any event, the State Department stopped asking us to be chaperones. Helped by a decision in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (U.S. vs. Edler Industries), State also limited the kinds of data to which the ITAR rules would be applied: Fundamental research was to be left alone, and only technical data significantly and directly related to specific items on the munitions list would be subject to regulation.

That eased the short-term problem, but the struggle was hardly over. Plainly a more permanent solution was desirable. With some urging from us, the National Academy of Sciences agreed to take on the issue and formed a distinguished committee under the leadership of physicist Dale Corson, president emeritus of Cornell University. The Corson committee developed a careful set of definitions that would exempt basic research from ITAR regulation, but recognized a narrow "gray zone" of dual-use technologies. That led eventually to Reagan's National Security Defense Directive 189, referred to in the article, which created the desired safe harbor for fundamental research.

I published an editorial in Science in April 1982 titled "The Government, Secrecy and University Research." I hate people who quote themselves, but in this case it is irresistible for two reasons. First, setting out this aged rationale may be useful in the present dispute with the government. Second, and somewhat ironically, this sorry business has reemerged just when I'm writing another editorial on a different subject for Science, my first as an employee! So here is the last part of the old one:

"If a Soviet scientist is viewed with such alarm that universities must be asked to police his visit, then the Department of State can apply visa controls. And if a technology has such military value that exposure in an open environment presents clear risks to national security, the government can classify the technology thereby permitting the universities to decide in advance whether they can accept the restrictions that come along with the work. But to apply a burdensome set of regulations to a venture that has gained such great strength through its openness will cost the nation more than it can be worth."

Would I change a word, 18 years later? Maybe one: Substitute "Chinese" for "Soviet." But that's about it. The more things change, the more they stay the same. SR

Donald Kennedy is president emeritus and Bing Professor of Environmental Science.