January 21, 2003
Restrict Dangerous Scientific Information?

A recent conference organised by the US National Academies of Sciences was held to debate the question of whether restrictions should be made on the publication of research that terrorists could use.

Several speakers at the conference urged that leaders in science sit down and talk with national security officials to outline what information it would make sense to keep confidential.

"Rational and well-conceived restrictions do remain necessary," Mitch Wallerstein said, a former assistant secretary of defense now at the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago.

Mr Wallerstein said universities should be more careful about who they admit and grant access to research, while the Government should look more carefully at who is granted visas.

The opposing argument is that scientists need to be able to show each other their research and to discuss their research in order to advance.

"Science is inherently a social activity," John Marburger, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, told the conference.

The problem, of course, is that there are people with malevolent intentions reading and listening to what scientists are telling each other.

Various agencies of the United States government have been putting security restrictions on research that they fund. Many researchers are resisting the new restrictions.

Before 9/11 and the anthrax attacks, most biologists would never have considered withholding results from publication. Outside of private companies and defence-related projects, the free exchange of information is a cornerstone of scientific culture. So the steps taken by the Bush administration have come as a shock to many researchers.

"For scientific openness, this has been an earthquake, an avalanche and a tidal wave rolled into one," says Steven Aftergood, who monitors government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington DC.

Some universities are turning down grants that come with restrictions on prior review before publication of research and on the nationality of researchers. However, not all universities are balking at the new funding rules.

But the National Security Agency refused to budge from a requirement that any foreigners working on a planned project at MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory be screened by the government in advance, forcing the school to turn down the money in September, Powell said.

About half of graduate students in the physical sciences and engineering come from abroad.

Lets entertain some hypotheticals. Suppose every pathogen known to humanity has its DNA sequence published on the web. Suppose nanotechnology advances far enough that affordable (lets say under $1 million and hence affordable by any decent sized international terrorist organization or rogue state) devices are developed for sale on the open market that can generate any DNA sequence and perhaps by using an existing bacteria place that sequence into an organism that then becomes the desired pathogen. The ability to make any pathogen will be available. A large body of scientific research may be available at some point in the future on how to modify pathogens to make them more virulent, to make them have a longer period of contagiousness for the host.

Suppose information is discovered to allow a pathogen to be bioengineered to have mild symptoms that mimic the symptoms of a mild cold for a couple of weeks before the host finally becomes seriously ill. Suppose other information is discovered that makes it easy to know how to modify pathogens in other ways that increase their usefulness to biological terrorists. At that point how do we stop some suicidal cult from killing a large fraction of the human population as part of their own plan to cross over to, say, rejoin with the alien spirits calling to them from a passing comet?

Suppose some research project investigating how well various devices can detect smuggled bombs discovers a way of packing a bomb that makes it impossible for existing detection devices to detect. If that method of packing is not known to terrorists and is unlikely to be discovered by them then should the scientists publish that part of their results?

Or suppose at some point in the future scientific research gets published that shows how to use then available nanotech to construct a small fusion bomb that doesn't require a fission trigger. Are we supposed to just say that the need for scientists to talk to each other trumps all other considerations?

The concern about where the graduate students in American universities come from is a valid one. Saddam's best weapons makers were educated in America. Should anyone of any ideological or religious persuasion from any country on Earth be allowed to come to the United States or other Western countries for advanced scientific and technical education?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 January 21 01:18 PM  Dangers Tech General

Eric McCormick said at December 21, 2004 8:12 AM:

A terrorist does not need the information of our scientists, hence a restriction proves unnecessary, and if the government wants to control science its only going to promote new technology to go under ground.

"Or suppose at some point in the future scientific research gets published that shows how to use then available nanotech to construct a small fusion bomb that doesn't require a fission trigger. Are we supposed to just say that the need for scientists to talk to each other trumps all other considerations?"-Randall Parker

Suppose any person in the entire world had access to the information super highway, suppose chemical cleaners are sold at super markets, suppose any kind of idiot out there can get access to guns, bullets, bombs. We live in that world, regardless of how restricted you make researching anything, there will be a way to access it.

Scientists are here for the further advance of human society; the basis of all we do is what they provide for us. Restricting all the work they do will not help protect us from anything getting in the wrong hands, it may indeed make it harder, but it will not protect us. Let science run its course, it may help us in the long run.

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