Academic Freedom Is An Intangible Asset!

Michael D. Moberly   April 24, 2014   ‘A long form blog where attention span really matters’.

Academic freedom as it applies to university-based scientific research is one of our most fundamental intangible assets! Most country’s higher education policy has been largely supportive of the time honored practice/tradition of academic freedom and open communication with respect to university-based research. Academic freedom entails, among other things, unfettered and at will exchange of research, information, options to publish findings.

Insofar as the U.S. is concerned, World War II prompted some government leaders to contemplate, in national security contexts, the value and competitive advantages of university-based scientific research, if adversaries were able to acquire and apply it against the U.S. A significant number of the government leaders engaged in this debate advocated the imposition of controls which would place restrictions on conventional academic freedoms with respect to research.

Of course, there were opponents. One quite strong opponent to government imposition of controls on scientific communication in universities was Vannevar Bush, who 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 further advances in the hope that our potential enemies/adversaries 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 era however, distorted the distinctions Bush sought to make. One result was there became few, if any, limits on the kinds of contributory scientific research which some Federal officials would interpret as being vital to national security and, therefore, warranting some type of control to limit communication, dissemination, and ultimately, availability.

During the Cold War, threats posed by the Soviet Union were the primary focus of national security and counterintelligence initiatives by the U.S. government and were concentrated on monitoring its methodologies and targets, particularly, intelligence collection activity directed at economic and technological information which was treated as an adjunct to traditional espionage, not as a separate topic. (From 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, spawned a new emphasis, i.e., the connections between nation’s economic stability, vitality, and national defense. And, beginning in the mid to late 1980’s, national security was seen more in terms of economic strength and vitality than in terms of pure military capability. In other words, as former FBI Directors stated before the Cleveland Economics Club, ‘the U.S.’s economic security equates with its national security’. In other words, they were becoming, from a strategic (national, international) policy perspective, indistinguishable, or, if you will, interchangeable.

But, despite numerous well argued protests emanating from the U.S. scientific – research sector, in general, some restrictions were still placed on traditional scientific communication. Relief from these information/research security controls began to emerge (lessen) as Cold War anti-communism perspectives were essentially ‘re-purposed’ to accommodate – reflect the many new international trade and foreign policy initiatives which sought more cooperation and collaboration with the Soviet Union and its (Warsaw Pact) allies during the late 1960’s. But, as relations with the Soviets and Eastern bloc countries deteriorated again in the late 1970’s, culminating with the end of detent upon the invasion Afghanistan by the Soviets, the previous restrictions on scientific communication and specific university-based research were re-emerged with new controls and restrictions being sought.

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

This same debate regarding scientific communication and national security emerged again 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’ by economic, defense, and competitive advantage adversaries.

These particular discussions led to the creation of the ‘Panel on Scientific Communication and National Security’ often referred to as ‘the Corson Panel’ named after the former 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 increasingly critical issue and its relevance to the U.S.’s national security. To be sure, the U.S. was certainly not the only nation expressing concern regarding this complex dilemma.

As would be expected, 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 possibly stronger and more stringent controls on the flow of scientific information and research within and between universities, controls which opponents argued would seriously affect the climate and operation of university-based research and the benefits stemming from them not only to the U.S., but other countries, as well. (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 summarized these critical issues in a 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 apparent increases in acquisition efforts by adversaries to the U.S., have raised serious concerns that openness may harm U.S. security by providing those adversaries with militarily relevant technologies that can be directed against us”.

“…as would be expected when major national (security) interests are being questioned, it’s inevitable that signs of distrust will emerge from all sides of the growing public discussion. The federal government, through its research and development agencies, and the university research community, where most basic research is conducted, both will lose much if the nation cannot find a policy course that reflects these legitimate concerns.”

There was consensus however among Corson Panel members upon completion of their work in late 1982, that universities and open scientific communication had been the source of very little of the problem of technology transfer to adversaries. The Corson Panel did acknowledge however, there had been a net flow of scientific information from the U.S. to other countries. This, they claimed, was consistent with the more advanced status of U.S. science. But still, the Corson Panel reported noted there was serious doubt as to whether adversaries could actually reap significant and/or direct military benefits from this information flow in the near term.

In late 1982, when the Panel’sreport was published, 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 espionage issues. At the time, the increasingly sophisticated and specialized profession known as ‘competitor and economic intelligence’ was literally in its infancy, and there is no public evidence that members of the Panel recognized or gave credence to this phenomenon since neither was characterized, at the time, as either global in scope or a routine business practice as they certainly are today.

A contributing factor 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)

Today, however, 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 preferences alone dictate 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. (Broadly attributed to David Major, The Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies)


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