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National Research Council calls for open exchange of research

A National Research Council committee co-chaired by Lehigh President Alice P. Gast Thursday called for the creation of a high-level national commission that would bring together leaders of the scientific research and national security communities.

“We believe it’s incredibly important for the research and security communities to communicate, collaborate and to understand one another better,” Gast said during a National Academies press conference in Washington, D.C.

In its report on "Science and Security in a Post 9/11 World," the National Research Council—the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering—recommended that the United States ensure the free exchange of unclassified research.

Citing the global nature of scientific research, the report also called on the U.S. government and universities to continue encouraging and welcoming international scholars and researchers.

“Science thrives when there is a free exchange of information and when scientists and engineers (embodying that information) are able to cross borders to train, collaborate and share knowledge,” the report’s executive summary stated.

Gast presented the recommendations at the press conference along with co-chair Dr. Jacques S. Gansler, former U.S. undersecretary of defense and vice president for research at the University of Maryland, College Park.

To download an mp3 podcast of the press conference, click here.

The National Research Council report recommends that the federal government create a Science and Security Commission that would be co-chaired by the national security adviser and the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The commission would include representatives from academic research institutions and national security agencies, and would review policies regarding the exchange of information and the participation of foreign-born scientists and students in research.

“We do need to institutionalize the dialogue,” Gast said in an interview following the press conference. “It’s clear that when we work together, the science and the security communities can understand the issues much better. And we need that level of communication in order to get the balance between science and security right.”

According to the executive summary: “Many in the intelligence community do not understand the importance of foreign students and scholars, the extensive nature and benefits of international collaboration in science, and the need for open scientific communication. Many in the university community do not understand the concerns of the intelligence community about academic research and communication or the responsibilities and limits that regulations such as export controls and select agents can place on researchers.”

In addition to the high-level commission, Gast suggested that it is important to bring people from the science and security communities together at all levels, including faculty taking sabbaticals or fellowships in security agencies, and security personnel coming to campuses to learn about university research.

The need to preserve the open exchange of unclassified research information is one of the key findings of the report, Gast said.

“Overwhelmingly, we feel that openness for our research enterprises is extremely important. That’s how our research thrives,” she said. “You publish your results, other people check them, test them, and build upon them. They take what you found and they get an idea and do something different.

“It’s that exchange, those conferences, those dialogues, those papers, and those visits by colleagues that really propel the innovation and creativity that have made our country so strong and made our research enterprise so strong,” Gast added. “And many, many of those are international collaborations now.”

While some of the restrictions placed on foreign students and scholars in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks have been eased, the report recommends that, “whenever possible,” policies and practices should “encourage the free movement of foreign students and scholars to scholarly/scientific conferences and to meetings in the United States and elsewhere.”

“We do think there is definite room for improvement,” Gast said. “There are still many difficult situations ... The fact that organizations have moved their international conferences to locations outside the U.S. in order to avoid the problems is still a grave concern, because we will lose the opportunity to host these important meetings.

The committee held four regional meetings in 2006 to gather information from those in the science and security fields. The study was sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the National Science Foundation.

--Jack Croft

Posted on Friday, October 19, 2007

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