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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"Scientific Freedom and National Security: Devil's Bargain or Dual Responsibility"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Annual Meeting
Universities Research Association
Washington, DC

January 30, 2003

See also slide presentation.

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact
The Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.

Good morning. I am very pleased to be here once again at URA's Annual Meeting. And, I can't think of two more distinguished speakers to share this morning's podium with than Sherry Boehlert and Jack Marburger.

Knowing that each of them would likely focus on the budget, I've chosen to speak about another issue of great concern to all of us, scientific freedom.

[Title slide]
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I've titled my remarks today, "Scientific Freedom and National Security: Devil's Bargain or Dual Responsibility."

In the 17 months since 9/11, global political tectonics have moved us into a new era. For science and for the science community this has meant increased visibility as a frontline contributor and as a backstage concern.

The same knowledge that brings us economic prosperity and better health can also be twisted to ill-intent. This is not a new story - in fact it is as old as humankind.

From the most primitive uses of fire to the most sophisticated manipulation at the nanoscale, knowledge has been neutral - neither good nor evil - human intent makes it one or the other. However, the potential for one or the other has increased with our accelerated ability to generate new knowledge.

[slide: Bertrand Russell quote]
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The 20th century philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote, "Almost everything that distinguishes the modern world from earlier centuries is attributable to science." This transformation is the result of centuries of free and open scientific inquiry and exchange of knowledge.

History is replete with examples of challenges to this freedom. In the long run these challenges have strengthened support for openness and made science a cornerstone of democracy and the wellspring of progress.

In this post-9/11 era, the balance between scientific openness and the high concerns about national security are at the forefront of debate in both the science community and the government institutions tasked with protecting the nation's security.

For the most part, this debate unfortunately is taking place within the confines of these two separate arenas. There may be active dialogue within each arena, but there is limited dialogue between the two.

The level of such debate predictably rises in times of heightened national security. This is as it should be.

We as scientists are passionate guardians of the free exchange of scientific knowledge for the sake of enduring scientific progress. We are also citizens who work as scientists for the progress and endurance of the nation. These are not mutually exclusive roles or responsibilities.

If, however, we are perceived as well-intentioned and dedicated to our calling, but aloof from society and self important in our esoteric knowledge, we're headed down an unproductive and destructive path. Our objections to an erosion of scientific openness will be interpreted as whining and self-serving. It will even engender antagonism.

[slide: Abigail Salyers' quote]
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In a Science magazine article of April 2002, Abigail Salyers, then president of the American Society of Microbiology wrote,

    "Although scientists themselves are well aware of the importance of the free exchange of information within the research community, a community that transcends national boundaries, the public may not necessarily be convinced that scientists can be trusted to this extent. There remains an undercurrent of public discomfort with what is seen by some, however wrongly, as freedom without responsibility."

Unfortunately, there are examples of science conducted without moral or ethical responsibility, both in the recent past and today. This poses a growing dilemma for us.

Just a few weeks ago, the January 12, 2003 New York Times Magazine featured a chilling article titled "Anthrax Island" by writer Christopher Pala.

[slide: Map of Vozrozhdeniye Island]
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Pala recounts his explorations of the ruins of the former Soviet Union's bioweapons site on an island in the Aral Sea. Many of you must have seen the same piece.

Later, Pala interviewed the retired Soviet Army Colonel, a physician, and microbiologist who had worked in the lab on the now-deserted island.

[slide: cost of biological weapons]
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The Colonel offered matter-of-fact statistics,

    "You know, biological weapons are cheap. .to achieve an effect on one square kilometer" ('effect' meaning killing one half the population) "it costs $2000 with conventional weapons, $800 with a nuclear weapon, $600 with a chemical weapon, and $1 with a bioweapon."

We all agree that for the most part, scientists need to be behind the scene players, curious and passionate questioners, if the work of science is to progress. In an increasingly public and connected world, however, our invisibility detracts from our credibility.

The National Academies have had a historical role in gathering the science community to address and debate issues affecting the science enterprise. They have been particularly active in the recent debate. However, scientists already have credibility among their peers.

This is truly the moment for them to exercise their citizen responsibility as well as their scientific responsibility. My predecessor at NSF, Neal Lane, gave us the term "civic scientist" for our lexicon and the concept of a new and important role.

This is a critical opportunity for us to speak out in one voice beyond the confines and safety of our own community. When the mutually agreed upon rules on scientific freedom are going to be changed, we should have an active role in educating the discussion and negotiating the changes.

If the science community sits as a participant at the decision-making table, it will exercise more than the role of concern for the health of science.

It will participate in an educational role that will necessarily be a two-way street. Scientists can be informative on the accuracy of the scientific information being discussed, as well as on the weight of the risks. The expertise and concern of scientists for the nation's welfare will be conveyed in person instead of in abstract written statements.

In turn, they can become informed on, and better understand, the national security point of view. This does not mean that they will be privy to the highest national security secrets, but rather better informed on the risks and dangers from the national security perspective.

A unity of purpose, especially when national security is a major concern, requires that all the players have a voice at the table.

There have already been some cross-conversations between these sectors but the academic community must be proactive in initiating an effort that represents a majority voice from the science ranks.

Why do I think that a comprehensive initiative on our part has added value?

For starters, it can reflect our collective interest and concern, not just as scientists but as citizens who are scientists.

If we are at the negotiating table, there is a better opportunity to promote the value of clear-cut definitions that come from common agreement. One of the worst possible scenarios would be a set of vague definitions that are open to diverse interpretations on both sides. How do you parse "sensitive but unclassified?"

The science community does not want to jeopardize national security any more than the security community wants to paralyze the most important driver of the nation's economy and its national defense. This seems then to be common territory for both sides of the debate to share.

In addition, there is, in fact, a strong case to be made for "national science security" as well as national defense security.

[slide: IT grid for US]
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The value of science in our society today is beyond calculation because it is so intricately and pervasively woven into the nation's fabric. Think of information technology and its intricacy, as one example. And yet a great deal of that value is dependent on the connections to, and the collaborations with the international science community.

If our nation's science and engineering becomes insular and severely protective, the international science enterprise will still be open, thus scientific availability will be like a half open spigot.

And it is useful to recognize that even if the global science spigot closed at this very moment, the science already out there is so vast and varied it would be the proverbial "closing of the barn door after the horses got out"

Another practical dilemma worth noting is that you can never close down conversations about science any more than you can about any other subject. Human instinct and nature requires connection and sharing, especially on subjects of common interest.

[slide: Economist magazine quote]
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In the Science and Technology section of the March 9, 2002 Economist magazine, there was a piece on scientific freedom and national security that made a plea for perspective, stating:

    "A sense of proportion is certainly needed.censoring the publication of research into aircraft technology would have stifled innovation without helping the people in the World Trade towers. Censoring biomedical research risks stifling medical progress - not least in countering the diseases that bioterrorism might unleash."

In weighing risks, we had better be prepared as a nation to sacrifice something for what we calculate will be our gain. And when we're talking about greater limits on scientific freedom, the gain had better be substantial enough to offset the magnitude of what we would lose.

This cannot be a decision made logically from only one point of view. The national security community cannot unilaterally calculate the losses from restricting scientific exchange anymore than the science community can unilaterally calculate the national security risks from scientific openness.

This will be an educational process on both sides. The process will be far better served if both sides sit at the same table.

We all know that perceptions and attitudes frequently influence legal and logical arguments. Reasonableness is best served when people and their points of view are at the table and not just present in a one-sided discussion.

We have it within our power and our best interest to insure that scientific freedom and national security do not become a devil's bargain. Rather they are the dual responsibility of two distinctly separate communities with different tasks in our society.

[slide: Dr. Colwell's quote]
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Each task is vitally important to the nation's long-term peace and prosperity. If we do not become active partners in crafting the policies that involve and affect our work, it will be done without our insight, reason, and wisdom. That does not seem to be the preferable choice for the continued health of science or the well-being of society.



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