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Research muzzled { January 3 2003 }

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Post-9/11 researchers fear muzzle from U.S.
Wyatt Buchanan, Chronicle Staff Writer Friday, January 3, 2003

Major universities across the nation, including the University of California, are under increasing government pressure not to publish some of their research lest it fall into the hands of terrorists, university officials said Thursday.

Clearly disturbed by what they say is an attack on the core of academic freedom -- the free-flowing dissemination of knowledge -- the officials say federal agencies, including the Department of Defense and the Justice Department, are demanding that the government be allowed to review finished research and also investigate the backgrounds of any foreign students who may be doing the research.

Last fall, when the controversy was aired in Congress, the White House said it had no interest in impeding scientific research, but, in light of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, needed to take "safeguards" to protect the nation's research capabilities.

The constraints, which existed before the attacks but on a smaller scale, have sent shudders through the research community, and some universities have turned down contracts rather than agree to what school administrators see as a growing infringement on academic freedom.

"Our mission is the academic dissemination of information. We're a public entity and believe it's the right of the public who supports us to know what we're doing," said Joyce Freedman, assistant vice chancellor for research, administration and compliance at UC Berkeley.

The campus receives about $276 million in federal money each year and turned down a grant from the Army Corps of Engineers early last fall rather than name any foreign citizens who would be involved in the project. UC's own policy is to not release the names of anyone who is working on a research project. Foreign students make up almost half of all graduate students in science nationwide.

"We're not thumbing our nose at anyone or saying we're above anything, but those are our guiding tenets," Freedman said.

Some institutions have cautiously agreed to government requests on a case- by-case basis, including Pasadena's California Institute of Technology, which allowed the Army Research Laboratory to review a professor's work on computer simulation.

Research traditionally falls in two classes -- classified or open -- and few universities do classified work on campus because researchers lose the right to publish their results. An obscure category of "sensitive but unclassified," which grows out of the government's "deemed export" rule, has appeared more frequently in federal contract language since Sept. 11, 2001.

If a university or any other group has a citizen of another country working on a project with a dual use -- a benign technology that also has military applications, for example -- that foreign citizen getting the knowledge in his head is deemed an "export" to the country of origin.

On these sensitive but unclassified projects, the government can step in and add new levels of restrictions, such as forcing the university to obtain a license from the Department of Commerce to allow foreign citizens to work on those projects.

Some members of Congress had worked to refine the "deemed export" rules, but the cautious mood in Congress after the terrorist attacks slowed that effort and caused the proliferation of "sensitive but unclassified" distinctions, said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose. She sits on the House Committee on Science, which heard testimony on the controversy in October.

At the University of Maryland, school officials came close to scuttling an Army aerospace contract because Army officials wanted to review and approve reports before publication, said Erica Kropp, director of the Office of Research Administration and Advancement.

"The freedom to publish is at the core of what we do," Kropp said. The school and the Army have negotiated a settlement that will allow the Army to review the research but cannot prohibit publication. Kropp said the agreement is "marginally acceptable."

The Justice Department insisted on approving results of a Cornell University study that looked at the physical abuse of college women, which caused the school to turn down government money for the research.

Faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published a report in June that recommended the school stick to its policy of not agreeing to any contractual obligation of a review of research results.

The school recently turned down $404,000 in government money because the government wanted to limit participation by foreign students in the project.

White House officials say such restrictions are justified, because one of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers entered the United States on a student visa while two others arrived on tourist visas but later applied for student visas.

President Bush's science adviser, John Marburger, told the House committee that it was not the administration's goal to impede scientific progress.

But "we must also take measures to safeguard our research enterprise, particularly given that terrorists have already shown a willingness to use our technology against us on our own soil," he said in October.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. / E-mail Wyatt Buchanan at

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