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AAAS Science & Policy Chief Describes How 9/11 Changed U.S. Research Enterprise
Albert H. Teich
[Photo courtesy of Harvey Leifert]
The U.S. Government's response to the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, was unusually swift and far-reaching, and some of the actions taken continue to directly affect scientific research and education, according to Albert H. Teich, director of Science & Policy Programs at AAAS. Speaking on 16 November, the final day of a week-long AAAS Leadership Seminar in Science and Technology Policy, Teich described various major laws and administrative actions that were implemented in the weeks and months following the attacks.
"Some of those actions were, I would say, productive and appropriate, and some of them are a little bit more questionable," Teich told the 36 seminar participants, who came from five countries. Among the major laws passed were the USA PATRIOT Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001); the attacks led also to establishment of the Department of Homeland Security. In addition, a series of actions tightened entry requirements for international visitors and sought to improve security at various research facilities.
"Not all of these, of course, really impacted science, but there were impacts in several areas," Teich noted. He described five such areas of concern among scientists.
Almost immediately after September 11, it became much more difficult for foreign researchers and students to enter the U.S. International researchers are essential to the success of American research programs, Teich said, "and the tightening up that took place after 9/11 caused some really serious problems—image problems, as well as real problems."
Science is increasingly globalized, he said, and the U.S. depends on a steady flow of foreign students and foreign researchers. More than half of the doctoral staff at the National Institutes of Health, for example, are foreign nationals. Scientific journal papers are increasingly authored by groups of scientists from several countries, which is especially true in physics, Earth sciences, and mathematics, according to data that Teich presented.
The so-called Visa Mantis program provides a special extra level of review for visa applicants from certain countries and in certain fields of study, making scientific collaboration more difficult than it had been previously. After September 11, the number of individuals reviewed under this program increased substantially. This caused substantial backlogs and long delays in processing visa applications. The real problem, though, was that the Mantis process was, at the beginning, very opaque. Visa processing could take many months, and denials were not explained to the applicants. Many international students missed the start of classes at their American universities, and scientists missed meetings they had planned to attend.
The scientific and academic communities took action, Teich said, issuing statements on ways to improve the system without compromising security. Congress held hearings, and some actions were taken that alleviated Visa Mantis problems. The wait time for visas has decreased, thanks in part to better consular training and staffing. Also, the validity of student visas was extended from one to two years. "It was," said Teich, "one of the few instances in which you've taken an action, and you can actually see the policy effect."
Although the situation has improved in the past two years, Teich said, we still have some problems with regard to visas. Also, the negative perceptions of the United States, based on the restrictions during the immediate post-September 11 period, persist among many international researchers and students.
Another concern to scientists, said Teich, are efforts to tightly regulate "deemed exports," a term referring to the transfer to foreign nationals within the U.S. of technology that is subject to export controls. This includes the export of information, he said, which can even be in a lecture, as long as the information itself is subject to export control. Restrictions may also apply to the use of certain equipment by foreign nationals in a U.S. laboratory.
Under a Reagan-era directive, information derived from basic research that would ordinarily be published in the open literature is exempt from export controls, but two years ago both the U.S. Commerce and Defense Departments proposed regulations that would significantly tighten these exemptions. Commerce wanted, for example, to base decisions on a foreign recipient's country of birth, not his or her country of current citizenship, Teich said. The regulations would also redefine, in a more restricted manner, the type of information that is exempt.
The Defense Department's concern was over access to certain sensitive laboratories. Foreign nationals would need to wear badges distinguishing them from U.S. citizens and would not have the same access as American citizens. Universities objected vigorously to this proposal, Teich said, telling Defense that the new regulations would be "totally antithetical to the whole notion of a university."
"This," Teich added, "was another instance in which the concerns of the communities were heard." Commerce withdrew its proposed regulations and formed a committee to review the situation. It is due to issue a report shortly, which is expected to make recommendations much more consistent with what the scientific community feels is appropriate.
The Defense Department has dropped its requirement for access controls and has issued a new proposal, which is still open for comment, Teich said.
At least two post-September 11 laws seek to control access to biological agents and chemicals that foreign terrorists might seek to acquire: the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness Act of 2002 and the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006. They require that persons who handle certain dangerous reagents be licensed to do so. A senior researcher at a Texas university was convicted and imprisoned for violation of the bioterrorism law for having shipped certain bacterial cultures into the U.S. from Africa, where he was working, Teich told the seminar.
Regarding the chemical facility law, Teich said that here also, comments from the affected scientific and academic communities succeeded in softening the impact of proposed regulations. "In a sense, these are demonstrations that the system that we have works, that it responds to the reasonable needs of the communities that are being regulated," Teich said.
Restrictions on scientific publications
An issue that directly affects AAAS, as publisher of Science, is what is appropriate to publish in the open literature, and what is not, Teich said. He gave the example of a paper published in Nature, in which the sequencing of the plague bacterium's DNA was reported. This information could assist researchers in combating outbreaks of plague, but, Teich added, it might also be used by terrorists who seek to make plague even more virulent.
A paper in Science described a researcher's synthesis of the polio virus from mail order chemicals. U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon, a Florida Republican who is a physician, expressed great concern over the publication of this information, Teich said, because few Americans have been immunized against polio since the disease was essentially eradicated in the U.S. Although polio could not be weaponized like anthrax, Teich said, there was still concern in some quarters about the Science paper.
Following these incidents, the publishers ofScience, Nature, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Science instituted new procedures to review papers for concerns about potential use of their data by terrorists, Teich said. In 2003, they issued a joint "Statement on Scientific Publication and Security."
Sensitive but unclassified (SBU)
The final category of post-9/11 impacts on science that Teich discussed briefly was the expansion of government control of information that is deemed sensitive, although it is not classified. This designation has been in use since at least the 1970s, Teich said, but the definition of what qualifies as SBU varies greatly from agency to agency.
When applied to basic research that is supposed to be exempt, it has been a problem for some scientists. The lack of interagency uniformity exacerbates the difficulty, and while some uses of SBU are surely legitimate, there are also instances in which the designation is used simply for "bureaucratic self-defense," Teich said.
The AAAS Science and Technology Leadership Seminar is a compressed version of the renowned two-week orientation session given every year to AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows before they begin their year-long assignments in government staffs and agencies. The 2008 seminar will be held the week of November 17-21. To receive advance notice of registration, please email email@example.com.
5 December 2007