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A threat to US research freedom?

US scientists regard freedom to pursue and publish basic knowledge as a fundamental right. But recent statements from the National Science Foundation (NSF) suggest the US government doesn't exactly see it that way.

NSF says it will refer research proposals "which it believes might require [ security] classification" to another government agency with the authority to impose such secrecy requirements.

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The policy may indeed be "of long standing," as Donald N. Langenberg, acting NSF director, recently explained in a letter to the journal Science. But it will be news to many scientists who have looked to NSF as a civilian agency with a mandate to encourage basic scientific research -- an agency whose support of projects would be untrammeled by secrecy restrictions and security clearances.

The US scientific community has accepted varying degrees of secrecy in military or proprietary industrial research as an unpleasant necessity. Usually this involves specific applications of knowledge, not the generation of new basic knowledge itself. However, that community is fundamentally committed to the proposition that pursuit of basic knowledge must remain free.

Indeed, the NSF was created specifically to support such free inquiry. Now, it would appear that information scientists give the NSF with their grant applications is at risk of being passed to some other agency, including military agencies, for possible restrictive classification.

Langenberg maintains that any such restraint would be rare and says, reassuringly, "the results of such research have not been classified in the past , and we do not expect them to be in the future. . . ." That is not the point. The mere fact that such a possibility exists at all is what is at issue.

The NSF statement has arisen from a long-simmering hassle between academic mathematicians interested in cryptology and the National Security Agency (NSA), which oversees government codes and secure communications. Developments in basic mathematics that can be implemented by computer now make possible what amount to unbreakable codes. The mathematicians have long suspected NSA of maneuvering to bring their work under a security umbrella. This suspicion erupted again earlier this year when research proposals which had been submitted to NSF were subsequently handed over to the NSA for review and possible funding -- a circumstance some mathematicians felt could have a chilling effect on their work.

Whatever the merits of that specific issue, Langenberg's statement goes beyond cryptography to embrace all fields of research within NSF's purview. This is a far more serious matter. It amounts to a potential restrait on the freedom to do basic research of which the scientific community has been unaware and which has never been debated openly.

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