February 7, 2003

Government Scrutinizes Research Publications

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Recent increases in government regulation have some University officials worried that terrorism will soon claim another casualty — academic freedom.

The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act has created, in addition to the already existing categories of classified and unclassified information, a new category of “sensitive” information. This last category could potentially include many aspects of Cornell research and is proving to be ambiguous terrain for an institution that holds a tradition of academic openness as one of its guiding principles.

“Cornell policy has always been that since we do not do classified research at Cornell, no agency that is sponsoring the research should be able to throttle the publication of that research,” said Stephen Johnson, director of government affairs.


The concern is that “sensitive” research may have to be reviewed before publication due to a policy of censorship called prior restraint. This policy conflicts directly with Cornell’s research policies.

“It has been and will remain Cornell’s policy that we will not accept any contracts that require prior restraint but we do plan on holding discussions on voluntary restraint with faculty this year,” said Robert Richardson, vice provost for research.

The government has already toyed with the idea of implementing prior restraint in areas that have previously fallen outside the realm of classified research.

Last year, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) requested that a report it had commissioned on the safety of the American food supply not be published. Other investigators, including those at Cornell, doing unclassified research for the Department of Defense (DOD) were asked to submit their work for review prior to publication. However, the DOD’s request was overturned and all but an appendix of the USDA report was released.

Further regulations may also try to seep into more unexpected areas of study.

“An example is materials science, one of our big majors here,” Johnson said. “That is now being considered a sensitive area. Now that covers anything from materials in computer chips to the materials in cars.”

Cornell plans to turn down a two-year $400,000 grant to study sexual assault and harassment in Cornell’s community of international students. The grant, awarded through the Department of Justice’s Violence Against Women Office, required that all findings be submitted to the agency twenty days prior to publication.

“If they don’t approve the findings, then we can’t publish and we don’t accept that,” said Patsy Brannon, dean of the College of Human Ecology.

The agency insists that the procedure is standard, but Brannon said she cannot ascertain why the department would want to approve the results.

Many members of the academic community think that self-restraint or other forms of non-government restraint may provide a better solution.

“In the areas of nuclear physics and information technology, particularly in cryptology, the communities have exercised voluntary restraint successfully for decades,” Richardson said.

Articles like one that appeared this summer in the journal Science have raised doubts over the effectiveness of self-restraint. In the article, researchers at the State University of New York at Stony Brook demonstrated how they were able to synthesize a polio virus from materials they ordered in the mail and suggested that other pathogens such as smallpox or Ebola virus could likewise be made from scratch.

Findings like these have spurred discussions in the academic and government communities regarding the publication of detailed material and how much information is appropriate in the disclosure of such findings.

Richardson suggests that restraint might be exercised within each research community.

“I think that there will be very sensible, broad discussions about where that line should be,” he said. “Of course, there may be freelancers who feel that it’s their job to act on their own, but the community will chastise those people who don’t comply to its standards of restraint.”

The concern over prior restraint goes beyond just the violation of a long-standing University policy. There are additional concerns over misuse.

“The fear is that the cloak of national security could be used inappropriately,” Johnson said. “For instance, maybe an agency wants to prevent something from being published because the findings do not reflect favorably on that agency or perhaps some bureaucrat might act in his or her best interest rather than in the best interest of the nation.”

In addition to providing a foundation for prior restraint, the USA PATRIOT Act is creating issues of mobility for students, particularly graduate students, and faculty.

“There were several students who were not allowed to return to the U.S. in the fall because they could not get through the various clearance procedures,” Johnson said.

The international structure of science is also being challenged, according to Johnson. “Many people are unwilling to go abroad to present research findings because of the same fears,” he said.

Johnson maintains that the University understands the need for national security and insists that Cornell is doing its part. Cornell has been involved in the Student Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) since before the Sept. 11 attacks.

SEVIS is a tracking system for international students that requires colleges and universities to share information with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. This ensures that those with student visas, like the ones carried by the Sept. 11 hijackers, are in fact enrolled in courses. The development of the system has been accelerated in recent months.

New restrictions on the handling of so-called selected agents are also expected to impact the University in dramatic ways.

“People who handle selected agents, certain pathogens or radioactive substances, will need to be investigated by the Department of Justice and that process might take up to three months. Right now the process is simply a self-declaration, but when that changes we are going to hit a crunch,” Richardson said.

Richardson pointed out that one of Cornell’s research triumphs was determining the structure of anthrax in the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source particle accelerator. Further restrictions might hamper research that employs the use of other pathogens or radioactive materials.

“We are an open university, so research resources have to be available to everyone. If people can’t do the research because, say, they happen to come from the wrong country, then that constitutes a violation of our basic principles,” Richardson said.

Other institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology conduct classified research at off-campus facilities in order to maintain academic freedom on their main campuses. However, Johnson says that the details of resolving such a system with Cornell’s policies are difficult.

“The hard thing is that the nature of academia is open as a free-flow exchange of knowledge and all of these new considerations are being placed down on what has been a traditional framework,” he said.

While the University is currently dealing with the repercussions of the PATRIOT Act, both Richardson and Johnson suspect further legislative challenges in the coming months.

“I believe part of it is the PATRIOT Act, but another part seems to be a shift in the polit
ical environment,” Brannon said.

Whatever the cause, the administration says Cornell’s response will be firm and consistent.

“The Cornell community will rigorously protect academic freedom and will make alternative arrangements elsewhere if necessary,” Richardson said.

With Cornell receiving over $360 million last year in external funding from government agencies like the USDA and the DOD, maintaining the security of academic freedom in a time of elevated concern over national security will likely prove to be a delicate battle.

Archived article by Philip Lane