Academic Freedom & Institutional Openness: A Short History

 Michael D. Moberly    December 1, 2011

 From the earliest days of the Republic until the dawn of modern global war, Federal policy has been largely supportive of the tradition in scientific research, particularly campus-based studies, of open communication, free exchange of information and wide publication.  The experience of World War II convinced the Nation’s leaders of the value of scientific enterprise for defending the country.

 Vannevar Bush, a strong opponent to any controls on scientific communication, stated in 1945 that, “there is no reason to believe that scientists from other countries will not, in time, re-discover everything we now know.  A sounder foundation for our national security rests in a broad dissemination of scientific knowledge upon which further advances can be more readily made than in a policy of restriction which would impede our further advance in the hope that our potential enemies will not catch up with us”.  (Vannevar Bush.  Science: The Endless Frontier. U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development, National Science Foundation. Washington, DC 1980 (originally published in 1945).

The subsequent Cold War, however, seemed to distort this recognition.  There appeared to be no limit to the number and kinds of contributions of science that were perceived by Federal officials to be vital to the national security of the United States and, therefore, in need of control to limit their availability. 

Consequently, despite the protests from the American scientific community, various restrictions were placed on traditional scientific communication.  Relief from these security controls occurred as Cold War anti-communism gave way to international trade and foreign policy of greater cooperation with the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies during the 1960’s.  As relations with the Eastern bloc deteriorated in the late 1970’s, culminating with the end of detent on the occasion of the Soviet invasionof Afghanistan, the old restrictions on scientific communication were slowly reactivated and new controls were also sought. 

Subsequently, during the first half of the 1980’s, American scientists saw a vast increase in national security controls on their professional communication, teaching, and speech.    (Relyea, Harold. Silencing Science: National Security Controls and Scientific Communication.  Ablex. Norwood, NJ 1994. Preface)

The debate emerged once again regarding scientific communication and national security. 

In March of 1982 as Department of Defense officials initiated discussions with the National Academy’s of Sciences and Engineering and the Institute of Medicine concerning ‘the acquisition and use of American science and technology.’ 

These discussions led to the creation of the Panel on Scientific Communication and National Security often referred to as ‘the Corson Panel’ named after the one time president of Cornell University who served as its chair.  The Panel was comprised of individuals representing industry, government, and the scientific (academic) community and was charged with examining this complex and critical issue.

The higher education research community was deeply concerned that, in the name of national security, the stage was being set (again) for the imposition of controls on the flow of information within universities, controls that would seriously affect the climate and operation of institutions and the benefits issuing from them to the nation.  (Gray, Paul E.  Technology Transfer At Issue: The Academic Viewpoint.  IEEE Spectrum, May, 1982)

Dr. Frank Press, former president of the National Academy of Sciences summarizes the issues of scientific communication in September 30, 1982 letter regarding the work of the Panel on Scientific Communication and National Security,  

 “…the issue of scientific communication and national security represents a most difficult policy issue. Advances in science and technology have traditionally thrived in an atmosphere of open communication and this openness has contributed to American military and economic strength and has been a tenet of American culture and higher education. 

However, recent trends, including significant increases in acquisition efforts by economic adversaries, have raised serious concerns that openness may harm US security by providing adversaries with militarily relevant technologies that can be directed against us. 

As would be expected when major national (security) interests are brought into question, signs of distrust appear on all sides of a growing public discussion.  The federal government, through its research and development agencies along with the university research community, where most basic research is conducted, will lose much if the government cannot find a policy course that reflects legitimate concerns.

There was consensus, amongst Corson Panel members, following completion of their work in late 1982, that universities and open scientific communication had been the source of very little of the technology transfer problem. 

However, the Panel did acknowledge there had been a net flow of scientific information from the U.S. to other countries.  That is consistent with the generally more advanced status of U.S. science, the Panel claimed, and there is serious doubt as to whether adversaries could reap significant direct military benefits from this flow in the near term.

 In late 1982, when the Panel’s report was formulated however, little was known about the steadily growing interest by business and government alike, in matters related to competitiveness and economics outside of traditional military or defense-related issues.  At the time, the highly specialized profession known as ‘competitor and economic intelligence’ was literally in it’s infancy, and there is little evidence that members of the Panel offered much credence to this burgeoning phenomenon since neither was characterized at the times as being global in scope or routine practices as they are today. 

A contributing factor to this assessment was that, at the time, the largely government sponsored intelligence empires still focused most of their acquisition and analysis attention on military, defense, and political subjects, not business, industry, economic or competitiveness matters.  (Scientific Communication and National Security. A report prepared by the Panel on Scientific Communication and National Security Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy.  National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. National Academy Press, Washington, DC. 1982)

In 1984, Dorothy Nelkin portrayed scientific knowledge (information) in a different and rather provocative way by characterizing  as a commodity that is vulnerable to commercial interests, public demands, and military controls.  The disputes about imposing controls on scientific communication reflect recurrent changes in governmental policies toward research in the direction of greater restrictions on the free flow of information, she said.  The disputes also reflect structural changes in the profession of science that are a source of tension as the norms and expectations of the scientific community conflict with current economic and political realities. (Nelkin, Dorothy. Science As Intellectual Property.  MacMillan. New York. 1984 p.91)

During the Cold War, threats posed by the Soviet Union were the primary focus of national security.  Counterintelligence efforts were concentrated on monitoring it. Intelligence collection activity directed at economic and technological information (in America’s private sector) was treated mostly as an adjunct to traditional espionage, not as a separate topic.  (Testimony of Louis J. Freeh, Director, FBI, before House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Crime, Hearing on Economic Espionage, May 9, 1996)

The end of the Cold War however, brought about an emphasis on the connection between economic stability, vitality, and national defense.  And, beginning in the late 1980’s, national security was seen more in terms of economic strength and vitality than in terms of pure military capability. 

In the ‘global economy,’ no longer is there any practical or useful distinction between national economic relations and international economic relations.  Most national economies, like that of the U.S., are no longer islands where domestic consumer preferences alone dictate economic outcomes.  (Gregory, Sean. Economic Intelligence in the Post-Cold War Era: Issues for Reform. 1997 and William Warner, University of Kentucky)

And, while most government sponsored intelligence agencies today retain a general mission for external intelligence collection, many, if not most, have refocused their attention to include acquisition of economic intelligence versus exclusively military-defense related targets.  (Attributed to David Major, The Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies) 

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