Balancing Scientific Publication and National Security Concerns: Issues for Congress


Publication Date: February 2006

Publisher: Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service


Research Area: Media, telecommunications, and information



The federal government has historically supported the open publication of federally funded research results. In cases where such results presented a challenge to national security concerns, several mechanisms have been employed. For fundamental research results, the federal policy has been to use classification to limit dissemination. For advanced technology and technological information, a combination of classification and export and arms trafficking regulation has been used to inhibit its spread. The terrorist attacks of 2001 have increased scrutiny of nonconventional weapons, including weapons of mass destruction, and publication of some research results have increased concerns over whether publication of federally funded extramural research results could threaten national security.

The current federal policy, as described in National Security Decision Directive 189, is that fundamental research should remain unrestricted and that in the rare case where it is necessary to restrict such information, classification is the appropriate mechanism. Other mechanisms restrict international information flow, such as Export Administration Regulations (EAR) and International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) that control export of items and technical information on specific lists. Both EAR and ITAR do not apply to sharing fundamental research results, so long as they are not subject to any governmental prepublication review.

The areas where export regulation and classification have predominantly occurred have been in mathematical, engineering, and physical sciences. Other contentious research areas, such as genetic engineering and manipulation, have been overseen through scientists' self-regulation and monitoring. The 1975 Asilomar conference produced a consensus statement on recombinant DNA research that formed the basis for the National Institutes of Health Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee. Recent research publications that have raised national security concerns have fallen outside of the areas traditionally regulated through classification and export control, and it is unclear whether these mechanisms will be equally effective. The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity is being established to aid in determining whether proposed federally funded research presents a biosecurity threat.

Stakeholders do not agree on the best method of balancing scientific publishing and national security. Some believe that the current method of selective classification of research results is the most appropriate. They assert that imposing new restrictions will only hurt scientific progress, and that the usefulness of research results to terrorist groups is limited. Others believe that self-regulation by scientists, using an "Asilomar-like" process to develop a consensus statement, is a better approach. They believe that, through inclusion of scientists, policymakers, and security personnel in the development phase, a process acceptable to all will be found. Relying on publishers to scrutinize articles for information which might potentially have security ramifications is third option. Finally, mandatory review by federal funding agencies, either before funding or publication, is seen as a potential federally based alternative. This report will be updated as events warrant.