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National Research Council Calls For Open Science

The possibility that the United States might lose its edge in technology and research represents one of the greatest risks to national security, claims a former U.S. undersecretary of defense.

The United States should ensure the open exchange of unclassified research despite the possibility that scientific knowledge could be misused by terrorists or rogue nations, said a report issued Thursday by the National Research Council.

The NRC is part of the National Academies. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter.

While the NRC report acknowledges the legitimacy of post-9/11 security concerns, it cautions that "policies aimed at limiting access by malicious parties also can constrain the efforts of those desiring to put such information to good use."

Jacques S. Gansler, former U.S. undersecretary of defense and VP for research at the University of Maryland, College Park, said in a statement that the possibility that the United States might lose its edge in technology and research represents one of the greatest risks to national security.

The report calls for greater clarity on the restrictions that may accompany federal funding, particularly as they relate to the involvement of universities. It also calls for a review of the rules by which research is designated "sensitive but unclassified," or SBU, which limits scientists' ability to publish research results and limits the involvement of non-U.S. researchers.

The report cites a 2003-2004 survey, conducted at the behest of the Association of American Universities and the Council on Governmental Relations, which found 138 attempts by the government to limit publication of scientific research or to exclude foreign nationals from research.

"In the view of the committee, U.S. leadership in science and technology -- leadership that has been gained in part through the interchange of ideas within the international community -- is central to achieving national security in the economic and defense context of the 21st century," the report said. "The political leadership of the United States must understand, and in turn must help all Americans understand, that as a nation the United States has no exclusive ownership of ideas or knowledge and that scientific discoveries and technological advances made in the United States often rely on knowledge created outside our borders. Although prudence requires close stewardship of the most harmful and dangerous products of human ingenuity, unnecessarily closing ourselves off from the world in a futile effort to protect ourselves will only isolate us from an increasingly integrated and competitive global community."

One aspect of isolation that the report warns against is the declining enrollment of foreign-born science students in U.S. universities.

"For more than 50 years, U.S. research universities -- the envy of the world -- have welcomed and fostered the talents of both foreign-born and U.S. students in the service of national and economic security," the report said. "Foreign-born scientists and engineers come to the United States, stay in large numbers, and make significant contributions to America's ability to achieve and maintain technological and economic leadership. Given the current diminishing rates of new scientific and engineering talent in the United States -- the subject of other reports and a topic of national concern -- the size of the U.S. research and development effort cannot be sustained without a significant and steady infusion of foreign nationals."

Such sentiment echoes the message Laszlo Bock, VP of people operations at Google, delivered to Congress in June.

"Simply put, if U.S. employers are unable to hire those who are graduating from our universities, foreign competitors will," Bock testified. "The U.S. scientific, engineering, and tech communities cannot hope to maintain their present position of international leadership if they are unable to hire and retain highly educated foreign talent. We also cannot hope to grow our economy and create more jobs if we are ceding leadership in innovation to other nations."

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