The presidents of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine said Friday the scientific community should work closely with federal agencies to research ways to combat new national security threats. They urged the government to refrain from creating vague categories of "sensitive but unclassified" information that "inevitably" stifles scientific creativity and weakens national security.
The statement on "Science and Security in an Age of Terrorism" - by Bruce Alberts, William Wulf and Harvey Fineberg, the presidents of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine, respectively - was the latest action by scientists concerned that government actions could damage the science needed to combat terrorism.
The presidents of the academies said, "Restrictions are clearly needed to safeguard strategic secrets; but openness also is needed to accelerate the progress of technical knowledge and enhance the nation's understanding of potential threats.
"A successful balance between these two needs - security and openness - demands clarity in the distinctions between classified and unclassified research.
"We believe it to be essential that these distinctions not include poorly defined categories of 'sensitive but unclassified' information that do not provide precise guidance on what information should be restricted from public access.
"They said the federal government should affirm and maintain the general principle of National Security Decision Directive 189, issued in 1985: "No restrictions may be placed upon the conduct or reporting of federally funded fundamental research that has not received national security classification, except as provided in applicable U.S. statutes."
More than 100 members of the MIT faculty have been elected to the academies. Election is considered one of the highest U.S. honors that can be accorded a scientist, engineer or health professional.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 23, 2002.