Monday, October 24, 2005

Research Threat to National Security

Most have heard of the past and continued efforts on the part of the Bush administration to ignore and downplay scientific research that spoils efforts to advance their political agenda. I have been looking forward to a talk this week by Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, appropriately enough entitled, The War on Science.

So it was interesting to see an article in the Hopkins Newsletter this week discussing the concerns that research universities are beginning to express about potential restrictions on research and publication by a myriad of government agencies that might claim such publication would be a national security risk. As we've come to understand with this administration, national security can mean a wide variety of things, from everything to practically nothing.

Unfortunately, the article lacks any sort of detail about what kinds of research may have or migth be restricted but that is not really a fault of the article. The government agencies, which are also unidentified, won't tell anyone what the restrictions are either. Hopkins President Brody says,
They can come in after the fact and say `that work you were doing in your lab is too sensitive, we're not going to allow you to publish it.

But when asked what this discretion entails, President Brody replied, "I have no idea. It's up the government. [They] decide what's sensitive but unclassified."

According to Brody, the government has increasingly begun to assume a broadening range of undefined authority with respect to designating research material a "threat to national security."

Dr. Ted Poehler, president of research at Johns Hopkins, further describes the concern and the potential for governmental interference:
What has happened in the past few years is that some government agencies have tried to censure, often in funding documents, the fact that if some kind of, what they call `sensitive information,' emerges from what we do or is involved in what we do, that they have the right to review or restrict dissemination of the information.
Hopkins has joined an impressive group of research universities, or, if you're a right winger, the ultimate lefty cabal, including Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Cornell, Chicago and Stanford, to express concern and offer resistance to such meddling.

What we can see really going on here is that the Bush administration is developing a new set of research classifications -- post hoc -- so that if any new research does not pass some unspecified, political correctness litmus test, the appropriate government agency can exert national security authority without telling anyone what the security threat actually is.

Bush more or less laid foundation for this with his initial restriction on federal funding for stem cell research. But, as was seen, the public nature of the announcement create a storm of bad publicity for Bush as it became obvious that the White House was willing to kill potentially valuable scientific research in order to pander to the fundamentalist base, most of whom probably had no idea what stem cell research was before Bush brought it to their easily crazed attention.

The White House has since learned how to handle things behind the scenes. As Poelher pointed out, these restriction are usually found, but not clearly described, in funding documents. Funding-cut threat is a favoured federal tool for restricting or otherwise prohibiting politically distasteful science.


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