Openness and Security: Problems, Progress, and Opportunity

Excerpts from President Charles M. Vest's remarks at the Annual Council of Presidents Luncheon of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, New Orleans, November 17, 2003.

© Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003. To reprint or excerpt for publication, please contact Laura Mersky at
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We must keep the nation both secure and technologically innovative.

This afternoon I would like to address the need to both achieve security and adhere to basic American values of openness…and to preserve the process by which the scientific community works to generate new knowledge. Only then can our universities drive innovation in America.

The land grant institutions have a proud heritage and mission of service to our public and to our government. In my view, the matters of openness in research, education and scientific publication that have been raised in response to the murderous attacks of September 11, 2001 must be carefully thought through in the context of our heritage and mission of national service.

Simply put, some developments in the war on terrorism could have the unintended consequence of diminishing U.S. leadership in science, engineering and innovation. This would ultimately reduce our security as a nation. The developments that must concern us result largely from lower level, risk-averse bureaucratic reactions rather than from policy or intent of the Federal Government.

The U.S. can succeed in the 21st century only through its mind power and technological innovation, not through geographic advantage, inexpensive labor or military might. Innovation is the key to productivity, and therefore to jobs, health, security and quality of life.

Indeed, technological innovation has been responsible for 50 percent of the growth of the U.S. economy during the last sixty years. Technological innovation is driven by basic research.

Today, our universities are essentially our only source of basic research, because industry now does very little R&D with a long time horizon. And our universities are also responsible for educating the next generation of scientists, engineers, managers, entrepreneurs, doctors, and leaders.

But the effectiveness of our universities as engines of innovation and prosperity is threatened by current and proposed ad hoc regulatory limitations on what can be studied or researched by foreign students and scholars, and by limiting scientific inquiry and communication through undefined categorizations such as “sensitive but unclassified.”

The U.S. must remain the destination of choice for the world's best minds.

For more than 60 years, the U.S. has attracted the world’s best minds in science, engineering and technology. We are now utterly dependent on their continued enthusiasm for coming to the U.S. for education, research opportunities and professional careers. Clearly stated, foreign students and scholars are critical to our national vitality.

Many stay and contribute to our economy and institutions. They provide much of the leadership and skilled workforce of our high tech sector.
Others return home with an understanding an appreciation of our values and way of life.
U.S. Nobel laureates, entrepreneurs and technological leaders are disproportionately foreign born. Indeed, MIT faculty who have received the Nobel Prize were born in the U.S., Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, and India.
Second and third generation Americans dominate many fields of science, engineering and industry. (Indeed, this has been true for a hundred years or more.)

Consider the implications of the following trends:

U.S. production of bachelor degrees in engineering, mathematics and physical sciences continues to decline.
The U.S. now lags Europe and Asia in PhD production in science and engineering. Twenty years ago we led both.
China soon will pass the U.S. in production of PhD degrees in S&E.

For nearly 15 years, non-citizens have earned over half of U.S. PhD degrees in science and engineering.

Leadership in science requires openness of inquiry, communication and collaboration.

Science and engineering are fast-paced, interactive enterprises. They follow unpredictable paths and continually build on the work of others in unexpected ways.

Research thrives on openness and suffers in isolation. Just think about the collapse of Soviet science in its imposed isolation of the Cold War.

It is usually counterproductive to impose boundaries on basic research and innovation. Research that might lead to a more virulent form of a disease, could also lead to new cures. A GPS system can guide a weapon or steer a family safely to its travel destination.

There are signs that security concerns may drive unworkable and counterproductive policy and controls.

The number of foreign scholars denied access to the U.S. is growing.

Foreign students enrolled in U.S. universities who travel abroad are being denied re-entry.

Foreign students are afraid to attend international scientific meetings, and foreign scholars are unable to obtain visas in a timely manner to attend meetings in the U.S.

The use of ill-defined categories like “sensitive but unclassified,” “controlled but unclassified,” “sensitive homeland security information,” and “non-releasable but unclassified information” is growing.

Agencies and program officers are applying ad hoc restrictions on publication and involvement of foreign students. This is starting to create an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust that is debilitating to a government-university partnership that we welcome, and that is essential for U.S. leadership.

Reasonable control regimes for “select agents” used in university laboratories have been created, but the list of such agents could expand in worrisome and potentially counterproductive ways.

The Technology Alert List that triggers reviews of foreign students and scholars now covers virtually every area of contemporary science and engineering. Blanket areas like civil engineering are listed. Architecture, planning, housing, community development, environmental planning, landscape architecture, and urban design have been added.

In other words, the university community must worry about restrictions.

Restrictions on people

1. Visas for international students and scholars.
2. SEVIS info/tracking system.
3. Access to sensitive areas of study …

Restrictions on information and materials …

1. “Sensitive but not classified.”
2. “Select agents.”

We need to both achieve security and adhere to basic American values of openness…and preserve the process by which the scientific community works to generate new knowledge.

Now how did this all come about?

Here is some useful chronology:

In May 2001, the bipartisan Hart-Rudman Commission on National Security in the 21st Century prophetically warned:

Attacks against American citizens on American soil, possibly causing heavy casualties, are likely over the next quarter century.

Equally important, this Commission stated:

Second only to a weapon of mass destruction detonating in an American city, we can think of nothing more dangerous than a failure to manage properly science, technology, and education for the common good over the next quarter century.

Prior to 2001, the university research community had faced a number of issues about Export Controls applied to scientific research that limited international engagement in research involving the use of satellites and high-performance computing.

On September 11, 2001 3,000 innocent people died in the murderous attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania.

The federal government thus had thrust upon it a daunting responsibility to protect the lives of people in the U.S. – but to do so within a new, complicated environment far different from that of the Cold War years during which our national defense was shaped.

Protecting us is, of course, a fundamental responsibility of our government.

And this new world of homeland and international security presented opportunities to the research university community to serve through security-related R&D. MIT is engaged in such service in a variety of ways.

But the academic community also recognized very quickly that reactions to these all-too-real dangers would inevitably pose conflicts with some of our most deeply held values, and indeed with the fundamental methodology of science:

Immigration policy and access of international students and scholars to our campuses and to scientific meetings would come into question;
Restrictions on publication and open scientific dialog about topics of potential use by terrorists would be proposed; and
Safeguards and restrictions on the use in our laboratories of potentially dangerous materials, especially biological agents would be established.

Indeed, each of these concerns became real in the months following 9-11:

The passage of the USA Patriot Act in late October 2001 affected both immigration policy and raised the issue of limited access to what were termed “sensitive areas of study.”

The Student and Exchange Visitor System (SEVIS) was upgraded and expanded at a highly accelerated pace.

International students, scholars and visitors to the U.S. were subjected to new reviews, interviews, delays, and more frequent denials of visas.

Ill-defined terms like “Sensitive but Unclassified” more frequently entered research policy and research contracts.

The Bioterrorism and Response Act of 2002 established a fremaework for protecting certain pathogens, referred to as “select agents,” from misuse.

The editors of a large group of important journals in the life sciences established a self-policing mechanism to restrict publication of information that might be key to the development of unusually dangerous mechanisms of bioterrorism.

The issue became: How can we be both secure and open?

The goal became the establishment of sound federal policy.

The openness of our campus to students, scholars and faculty from all over the world is one of our greatest strengths, and is at the heart of the phenomenal success of the American research university.

Indeed, scientific progress itself depends on open, international dialogue, publication of data, and repetition and verification of research results.

But we also surely believe that we have a responsibility to apply our talents and expertise to keep the nation and world secure.

It is essential that we balance these interests, and I believe it is possible to do so.

The AAU and NASULGC, have pursued a three-part agenda of:

Speaking out forcefully on threats to openness;
Reaffirming, articulating and living by our basic principles; and
Engaging in productive dialogue with federal policy makers to solve problems together.

But these issues are still in play.

What is the visa situation today?

There are three areas of concern to our community regarding visas.

The most obvious is entry visas for new students and scholars.
The second is reentry of these students and scholars should they temporarily leave the U.S. for personal or professional travel, such as visits home or participation in scholarly conferences.
The third is entry into the U.S. by non-U.S. citizens to attend scientific meetings or other short-term visits.

We all are well aware of the delays and complications faced by students and scholars in the last two years. These result from at least two changes in policy and practice. The first is the dramatic ramping up of the numbers of applicants whose materials are sent by embassies and consulates to the FBI for special security checks.

A primary mechanism for selecting applicants for security checks is expressed interest in fields of study or research that are listed on the Technology Alert List, which has been expanded to include seemingly absurd fields. The second is the congressionally mandated requirement that over 90% of all applicants must be personally interviewed.

The government is working to improve the visa situation.

It is clear that the federal government has made serious and effective efforts to make the path to U.S. colleges and universities smoother and faster. In my view this represents a response to calm, reasoned dialog between the government and our community, and to interest in the issue at the highest level of the Administration.

In early June of 2003, the Department of State informed its embassies and consulates that interview priority was to be given to students, academics, and exchange visitors.

In response to concerns expressed to DHS by the AAU, NASULGC and other groups, a special SEVIS team was formed and a 24/7 command center was established in Kansas City last summer. Border officials were trained to respond to incoming students who lacked proper I-20 documentation by faxing a request for confirmation to the institution. Students were admitted with the understanding that there would be follow-up. 600,000 prospective students flowed through the system, and 190 individuals were turned back at the border because they were not in the SEVIS system and institutions could not vouch for them.

Institutions see some improvements but have continuing cause for concern.

MIT’s experience was that the entry of international students and scholars was appreciably smoother this year than last, but still required a lot of time-consuming inquiry and assistance. The improvement seems to be due to a combination of somewhat improved efficiency of the government and very careful planning and communication among our International Students and Scholars Offices, the applicants, and our own academic departments.

Issues of reentry of students and scholars who leave the U.S. while studying in our universities continues to be a source of frustration, inconvenience, negatively impacted research programs, and lost opportunity. One of our Iranian graduate students went home to get married, and his return to the U.S. was delayed for 10 months. (He bought our international student coordinator a piece of petrified wedding cake.) Another student has a U.S. born infant child who has required a series of heart surgeries at one of our leading hospitals. After returning home, he has been told that it may take an “indefinite time” to process his security check, and additional surgeries have been postponed twice.

I am sure that we all know such poignant stories. Their number is modest, but their human impact is strong

We are just now gaining some early insight into broad trends in enrollment of international students since September 2001. Last week NASULGC, AAU AND NAFSA released the results of a survey responded to by 331 universities.

Almost half of the institutions reported reductions in the number of international students this year, although most large research universities reported a slight increase or no change.

I note parenthetically that a press release on Saturday indicated that an IIE survey to be released today would indicate that the total number of international students in the U.S. increased by less than 1% this year, the lowest rate of increase in seven years.

Among the responding AAU institutions there was a 40% increase in visa delays for new students compared to last year, with most of these being for graduate students. 621 students missed the start of the academic term. Almost 60% of the delays were experienced by students from China, and about 30% by students from Muslim or Arab countries. These same universities reported that the number of visiting scholars experiencing visa delays was more than double that of last year.

Thus some improvement in process and policy is clearly underway, but there are strong hints that the overall numbers of students and scholars coming to the U.S. is trending downward, albeit only slightly to date.

But the most important question of all has no answer yet – are there any changes in the quality of international students and scholars coming to America? Has the strength of our universities as magnets for the absolute best and brightest students from around the world begun to diminish?

We should be especially concerned about short-term visitors and scholarly meetings.

In my view, our nation’s ability to maintain its nature and reputation as welcoming and as the leader in research and scholarship is most vulnerable because of difficulties experienced by short-term visitors and those coming to attend scholarly meetings.

I have no hard data on this topic, but there anecdotal evidence that far too many distinguished visitors are offended by what they interpret as a negative, questioning attitude toward them. Some refuse to come here. Organizations are questioning whether it is a good idea to hold their meetings and conventions in the U.S.

Here the face-to-face interviews are cumbersome and unwelcome by many. There are plans to improve this situation with more machine-readable passports, and soon most entrants with visas will be fingerprinted by scanning devices. But the psychological impact will remain of great concern. We simply cannot afford to let our international connections erode away.

More effort and resources are necessary.

The Government has begun to improve the reentry system by granting clearance to many students and scholars to exit and reenter the U.S. for one year without additional review. This is a good start, but we should continue to press for further improvements such as extending this beyond the one year limit and by enabling current student and scholar visa holders to revalidate their visas before leaving the U.S. for appropriate academic or personal reasons.

Further refinements and improvements surely require that Congress appropriate additional funds to the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security. We should continue to advocate for this.Let me now turn to issues regarding the conduct of research and publication of its results. It is generally agreed that the most complex challenges and dilemmas are in the Life Sciences.

Molecular biology and genetics pose challenges that are of particular note. These fields deal with knowledge and technologies that can be used for good or ill; that do not necessarily require large teams; that may utilize relatively simple and inexpensive laboratory equipment; and that can involve direct manipulation or intervention in basic life processes. They are also particularly mysterious and frightening to the general public and thus ripe for creating psychological terror that can far exceed the actual or potential damage to health. Finally expertise and knowledge in these fields resides in all corners of the globe and cannot be viewed as an issue that can be resolved on a national basis.

It seems to me that we need some forms of voluntary agreements in within the scientific community. Indeed, I suggested in a Wall Street Journal editorial a year ago that the scientific community should “create a framework of forums in which scientists can determine the need for new mechanisms appropriate to our security needs and the requirements of science.”

Earlier this fall a National Academy of Science panel chaired by Professor Gerald Fink of MIT and the Whitehead Institute recommended in some detail mechanisms for such voluntary self-governance by the scientific community as well as expansion of existing regulatory processes.

This NAS panel noted that many years ago the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, following extensive discussion with the biomedical research community, established a system for review of experiments involving recombinant DNA. And the panel identified seven classes of experiments involving microbial agents with potential for misuse and recommended that the NIH expand its system of review to encompass them.

The core of an infrastructure for such self-governance exists in the U.S. Current NIH guidelines require institutions in which they sponsor recombinant DNA research to establish an Institutional Biosafety Committee, or IBC. More than 400 IBCs currently exist and can be used as the first tier for reviewing experiments of concern. According to the NAS panel, experiments that require further consideration could then be referred to an expanded version of the NIH Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee, or RAC.

The scientific community and the government have not yet extensively debated these recommendations.

Regardless of what restrictions may or may not be placed on biomedical research, the issue of how open scientific communication and publication should be is before us.

In February 2003, several leading journals that publish papers in fields such as microbiology adopted a policy statement that pledged a certain level of self-censorship to prevent publication of scientific information that might be used for malevolent purposes.

Those who developed and adopted this statement generally shared a view that “there is information that, although we cannot now capture it with lists or definitions, presents enough risk of use by terrorists that it should not be published.”

They recognized the gravity of withholding such information, because the integrity of the scientific process requires that work be reported “in sufficient detail to permit reproducibility.”

Nonetheless they concluded that “We recognize that on occasion an editor may conclude that the potential harm of publication outweighs the potential societal benefits. Under such circumstances, the paper should be modified, or not be published.”

It is far too early to determine how this will work out in practice.

As sensible as these approaches to biomedical issues may seem at first glance, they cannot be implemented lightly.

My MIT colleague, Nobel laureate Phillip Sharp has recently observed that:

1. Biological scientists do not know how to make a novel effective bioweapon;
2. Infections by natural pathogens is a much bigger threat than bioterrorism; and
3. In developing national security we should be sensitive to not damage the public health systems which protect us.

Sharp further concludes that The best defense will probably come from a global effort to

1. Detect and control new emerging infections;
2. Gain intelligence about the activities concerning potential bioweapons in other countries; and
3. Assure the open dissemination of knowledge about biological science.

In other words, as we try to increase our sense and reality of security against biological attack, we must be very careful not to do damage to the very system that protects our health and safety and that advances science through open dialogue.

Universities face serious decisions regarding the conditions under which they will accept sponsored research.

In 1985, President Reagan promulgated NSDD 189 establishing classification as the appropriate means of control of federally sponsored university research with national security implications. Supported strongly by universities and reaffirmed by every subsequent administration, including the Bush Administration, NSDD 189 remains on the books today. However, over time its importance and central meaning have been lost or diluted in Departments and agencies. Since 9/11, the national security bureaucracy largely appears to be unaware of NSDD 189 and not to recognize it as Bush Administration policy.

In my view, Federal agencies should rigorously adhere to NSDD 189. This would establish a clear bright line between classified and unclassified research. Each university could then make a fundamental decision about whether to accept classified research on its campus. Currently, most do not, but some do.

Some campuses are reexamining whether to accept classified research. A blue ribbon faculty committee at MIT chaired by former Air Force Secretary Professor Sheila Widnall recently reaffirmed MIT’s policy of not permitting classified research on our campus.

But the problem we all increasingly face is that some federal agencies present us with a more complicated choice. They send contracts without bright lines. Contracts arrive with no classification, but they include troublesome clauses that place restrictions such as:

1. Invoking a clause from the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) that absolutely prohibits publication of research results unless approved by the government;
2. Ad hoc restriction of publication requiring non-standard agency reviews;
3. Imposes restrictions or special notification about and review of foreign nationals who are proposed to work on the project; or
4. Limits dissemination of data generated under the research agreement, e.g. limits the distribution of reports.

We know something about the extent of this issue and of how our sister institutions are reacting. 20 research universities, some public and some private, have shared anonymous data about their experience with and disposition of such troublesome clauses in research contracts. This information will also be made available to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

These universities have reported that they are currently dealing with 107 such restrictive clauses. 35 have been accepted. Changes considered acceptable to the universities were negotiated in 33 cases. 6 awards were rejected by the universities as unacceptable. 33 are still in process.

This puts us squarely on the line. It is essential in my view that we be certain that on our campuses contracting officers carefully scrutinize contracts for such troublesome clauses, and that we have specific processes for review and decision about whether to accept them.

This is a choice that is up to us.

I personally believe that the default should be to reject such clauses. They represent a slippery slope that could lead to serious erosion of basic values of openness of U.S. universities and could harm the fundamental process of scientific inquiry. I believe that we best serve our nation by adhering to these values and processes. It also is my view that we teach our students by how we react to these sometimes difficult situations.


The debate about security and openness is not new.

In 1958 Norbert Wiener opined, “To disseminate information about a weapon…is to make practically certain that it will be used.”
As if in rejoinder, Edward Teller said in 1987 that “Secrecy is not compatible with science, but it is even less compatible with democratic procedure.”

These statements by two brilliant scientists with experience in defense work reflect the fact that virtually all science and engineering knowledge, or most other knowledge for that matter, can be used for good or ill.

This certainly does not mean that we can wash our hands of the responsibility to address hard questions about the safety and security of our fellow citizens. But in an age when the “weapon” may be a truckload of explosives, a computer virus, a commandeered aircraft, or finely milled bacterial spores, “dissemination of information” is a nebulous matter. And in an age when the rapid advance of science and technology is essential to sustaining our health, economy, and quality of life, Teller’s observation is of crucial importance.

Traditional American values of openness in education and research must prevail. But this will be possible only if we in research universities contribute our talents to maintaining the security of our homeland, and if the Federal government and academia maintain a respectful, substantive, and effective dialogue between those who do science and those who are charged with protecting the nation.

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