'Sensitive' is new watchword in US

December 23, 2005

Higher education unions meeting in Melbourne this month expressed concern over anti-terrorism laws in the UK, Canada, Australia and the US

When a Stanford University researcher wrote a paper describing how terrorists could kill thousands by putting a tiny amount of toxin into the milk supply, the US Government tried to stop it being published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , writes Jon Marcus in Boston.

The academy published the paper anyway, saying there was no proof it could help terrorists.

Yet when scientists sequenced the genome of the virus that caused the 1918 influenza epidemic, the American Association for the Advancement of Science asked the Government's National Science Advisory Board for Biosafety to review an article about it. The board cleared the article for publication.

These are the divergent ways US academics have responded to the confusing restrictions imposed since the terrorist attacks of 2001.

Biological researchers in particular are trying to contend with the "dual use" approach to their work that has long been accepted by physicists and others who have dealt with classified and unclassified information. The question is largely how to decide what information is potentially dangerous to circulate publicly.

"We know what a nuclear bomb is, so you know there's a fairly sharp line that you do or do not cross," said Benn Tannenbaum, senior programme associate at the Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy at the AAAS.

"In the biological world, it's much more difficult. It hasn't been an issue until very recently."

One scientist said academics were hoping the issue "would just blow over, and if they're patient this interest in the regulation of biological research will go away".

The AAAS and other scientific organisations are trying to create a model under which researchers regulate themselves.

But they may not have a choice. The Government has added new restrictions to grants and contracts that require greater pre-publication review and background checks to be made on foreign-born researchers. Much of this research has a new name - neither classified nor unclassified, but "sensitive" - which opens the way for more government oversight.

Grants covered by this label require that labs get special licences to employ foreign researchers, for instance, something most have balked at doing. It is an expensive principle over which to take a stand. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology alone lost $404,000 (£228,0000) in government money when it refused to agree to get a licence for foreign researchers in an artificial-intelligence lab.

"Sensitive" contracts also include more requirements for pre-publication review. In 2003, some 138 government grants included restrictions on publication and 33 restricted the sharing of research results, the Association of American Universities and Council on Governmental Relations found.

Anti-terrorism activities have had a more direct effect on academics. Sami Al-Arian, a professor at the University of South Florida, lost his job and was charged with conspiring to support the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. He was acquitted of half the charges against him but the jury was deadlocked over the rest. But he still faces possible deportation.

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