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Post-9/11 Security Measures Raise Questions About Scientific Freedom


Have U.S. efforts to tighten security following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks had an effect on scientific research in the United States? A report accuses the Bush Administration of instituting policies and practices that hamper scientific and academic freedom, charges the White House denies.

The title of the report is "Science Under Siege," and it was conducted for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Co-author Tania Simoncelli says she believes efforts to tighten security in the United States in recent years have led to a wave of government policies that increase secrecy and surveillance.

"Looking generally at this broad range of policies, we started to notice that there were a number of these post-9/11 policies that were having a disturbing and disproportionate impact on science," she said.

She points to three broad areas that have been affected. The first, she says, is what she calls the high rate of classification of documents or the designation of information as "sensitive," and therefore, not available widely to the public.

"The second area is an attack on scientific freedom that's not about the free flow of information, but rather the free flow of people. Foreign university students, especially in the sciences, have been increasingly monitored, excluded from participating in particular research projects and sometimes prevented or heavily delayed from entering or re-entering the United States, to study here," she added.

In the report's third overall finding, Ms. Simoncelli says some scientists have stopped doing research in sensitive areas because of new restrictions on scientific materials and technologies, as well as complex regulations.

Among the report's recommendations, the ACLU lawyer called for the Bush Administration to classify less information and to remove what she called unnecessary restrictions on foreign students and scholars. She added that she believes science, as much as possible, should not be subject to politics.

"I think science, especially regulatory science, is never going to operate completely free from political interference,” she explained. “But the administration should not be using its power to censor, obstruct or tamper with or distort findings of scientists, to fit its political agenda, which is part of what we describe in the last part of the report, as being part of what we're seeing in these broader trends."

The White House rejects accusations that post-9/11 security measures have led to a clampdown on scientific freedom. Bob Hopkins, with the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, says a balance has to be struck between the two.

"I would say that this document criticizes actions taken to address security concerns, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack,” said Mr. Hopkins. “And the administration has worked in good faith with serious members of the science community, including the National Academies, to determine the best way to enable the conduct of science without providing terrorists a road map for their ends."

Mr. Hopkins acknowledged there are fewer foreigners coming to the United States, but he said there are many reasons for the lower number.

"I think there are a lot of factors for that,” he added. “But I think the United States is by far the world's leader in science and in innovation, and is the greatest magnet in the world for talent in the sciences, and will continue to be so."

Mr. Hopkins also criticized the methods of those who prepared the ACLU report.

"They completely failed to seek any input from knowledgeable administration officials to inform their report. I think that the bottom line is this document lacks credibility. And, has more to do with politics than science," he said.

The issue of politics and science was highlighted earlier this month with the resignation of Philip Cooney, the chief of staff of President Bush's Council on Environmental Quality. Mr. Cooney stepped down days after documents revealed that he had edited government climate reports to downplay the link between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. The White House said the resignation was not related to the revelations. Mr. Cooney is a lawyer with no background in science. He is due to start work at a petroleum firm within the next few months.

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