Terrorism Repercussions: Scientists consider threats, opportunities after Sept. 11

U.S. science and technology may suffer long-term damage from the fallout of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, according to a new report from the Washington, D.C.–based American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The problems, say the six scientists who authored the report, could stem from new proposed government policies to restrict the flow of technical information and the participation of foreign students in research areas potentially useful to terrorists. Examples include missile technology and seemingly less sensitive topics, such as marine technology and robotics.

The scientists claim that freely available research information and international collaboration have enabled the United States to develop “the world’s most dynamic scientific and engineering enterprise.” This shouldn’t be jeopardized in the interests of increased security, they say.

Many policy changes proposed since September are detrimental, says M.R.C. Greenwood, an author of the report and chancellor of the University of California, Santa Cruz. For instance, the Office of Homeland Security has suggested it might limit publication of research findings that could be useful to terrorists.

Openness in U.S. science provides a challenge, but “it’s also been its salvation,” says Greenwood. Publishing details of experiments and results ensures that research is of high quality. Censoring scientific papers wouldn’t be in the best interests of research, she says.

The report cites concerns about a list of potentially sensitive subjects–including biotechnology and chemical engineering–that the State Department has already drawn up. Greenwood notes that moves to restrict such areas could actually damage national interests because foreign students produce a large portion of the research in these areas. Currently, 28 percent of people holding Ph.D.s in science and engineering in the United States are foreign born.

“We don’t have enough students studying science and technology as it is,” says Lewis M. Branscomb, former director of the science, technology, and public policy program at Harvard University.

The report also flags some areas vulnerable to assault. One hypothetical example in the report envisions chaos ensuing if a terrorist attack with hemorrhagic fever were to be coupled with a severe disruption of the Internet and national phone networks.

“A pittance has been devoted to information defenses [by the government],” says Eugene H. Spafford, report author and professor of computer science and philosophy at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. In the United States, as few as seven new Ph.D. recipients a year have in-depth knowledge of informational security, he says. Defense against cyberattacks lies in “supporting basic research and education in this area,” he adds.

It’s not all bad news though, says Branscomb, noting the huge influxes of funding into counterterrorism research slated for the 2003 federal budget. In terms of government support, physical and engineering sciences have been starved for many years relative to the biological sciences but will now benefit from their potential role in fighting terrorism.

John Pickrell is a freelance writer based in Sydney and the author of Flames of Extinction: The Race to Save Australia’s Threatened Wildlife.

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