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Conference Addresses Secrecy in Science

By Anna K. Benefiel and Karen E. Robinson
STAFF REPORTERS

Where is the line between open exchange of scientific knowledge and technological confidentiality? The conference on “Secrecy in Science,” organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and hosted by MIT, sought to answer this and related questions yesterday in Kresge Auditorium.

The conference attracted noted speakers such as Senator Daniel P. Moynihan (D-NY), Institute Professor and former Director of Central Intelligence John M. Deutch PhD ’61. AAAS Program Associate Amy C. Compton said the conference was meant to serve as “a public forum in which a larger discussion on secrecy in science” could be held.

Addressing an audience of approximately 200, Moynihan spoke about the nature of secrecy and its ramifications in a society where increasingly, the interaction between government, industry, and academic institutions discourages openness.

He quoted the economist Joseph Stiglitz in saying that people have “‘a basic right to know... what the government is doing and why,’” and “‘secrecy is corrosive: it is antithetical to democratic values, and it undermines democratic processes.’” Also discussing the changing role of secrecy in the post-Cold War Era, Moynihan stressed the need to recognize the systemic nature of secrecy in American culture.

Deutch talks about research

Deutch followed with remarks about the issues facing universities as they enter into joint research with government and, increasingly in recent years, business agencies. Deutch highlighted the role universities agreed to play shortly after World War II: to keep Cold War research top-secret.

“A big mistake was made by the universities in responding to that request,” Deutch said. Contrary to academic ideals of making of public and available to the fruits of scientific inquiry to the worldwide research community, “[Secrecy] was introduced into the academic process.” Deutch noted that secrecy is no longer as pervasive. Gradually, universities have moved away from this kind of closed-door policy through arrangements that move such confidential research off-campus, he said.

Deutch also spoke about the growing dependency of universities upon industry funding for research, and made recommendations aimed at protecting academic integrity. Among the recommendations: sensitive research ventures should be moved off campus; students who participate in this research must be rewarded; and universities “should not take equity position in such research ventures,” so that administrative decisions are compromised by a university’s financial interest.

A panel of experts then discussed various aspects surrounding the relationship between universities and industry.

Panelist Martin Michaelson of Hogan and Hartson Legal Counsel asserted that “secrecy entails at its core the suppression of knowledge... encourage[ing] convention of thought.”

Alan Hartford, from Massachusetts General Hospital, said that results of his survey of universities showed that 64 percent of 2,052 respondents have some form of research relationship with industry, and that this funding influences the scientists’ research.

One example of the collision of academic and corporate wills was the case of Dr. David G. Kern, previously of Brown University and Memorial Hospital of Rhode Island. Kern held that his responsibility as a physician demanded that he disclose results of a study of an unusual lung disease experienced by workers at a textile plant, despite a confidentiality contract he had signed with the manufacturer 15 months earlier.

Peter Gosselin of the Los Angeles Times asked if we are “paying too high a price for the benefits” of secrecy, while audience members lauded Kern for his involvement in bringing the issues of secrecy in occupational medicine to public scrutiny.

Panel talks about cryptography

Cryptography pioneer Ronald L. Rivest, associate director of the Laboratory for Computer Science, and Scott McIntire, special counsel to the Appellate Staff of the Civil Division, subsequently participated in a panel discussion about regulations that control cryptography.

While regulations do not have a huge effect on research, Rivest said, licensing requirements are “poorly drafted and poorly managed.” Any information may be printed, but some of that information would be illegal if scanned into a computer, he said.

McIntosh explained that licenses are required for export of any cryptography software, whether in source or compiled form. “The government’s concern is not the information, its the functional capability of the software to make a computer perform encryption tasks,” McIntosh said.

The government introduces the issues of federal secrets and controlled information in “a movement to regulate much of the world to scientific ignorance in the interest of protesting national interests,” said panelist Herbert N. Foerstel, a board member from the National Security Archive.

Rivest concluded by saying that there are “lots of books written; lots of lectures” given on cryptography. “I believe we are at the sunset of cryptography restrictions.”