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Stifling scientific discussion ultimately saps US strength

US science is vigorous and productive. But US scientists are concerned that continued attempts by government officials to restrict the free flow of nonsecret scientific information could cripple their enterprise.

This concern was evident at the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Detroit.

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AAAS executive officer William D. Carey said he is worried by ''hypersensitivity'' to the notion that the Soviet Union might benefit from US technology. ''We've got to be very careful we don't shoot ourselves in both feet by applying unreasonable controls on unclassified research,'' he warned.

Carey and other scientists and administrators who spoke to this issue noted that they have no desire to help the Soviets militarily. They accept the need for effective control of militarily useful data and technology. But they say officials who want to extend such control to nonmilitary, nonsecret research don't understand what national security is all about.

Computer scientist Steven Unger of Columbia University said the effect of such inappropriate restriction would be to weaken science and technology and thus to undermine the US economy and, ultimately, US military strength.

''There are two kinds of damage that can be done, . . .'' he said. ''One is that it impairs the development of science and technology. And the other is that (it impedes) many of the public decisions that are made in this country (because they) depend on technical issues.''

Harold T. Shapiro, president of the University of Michigan, further reasoned that restricting what now is open scientific communication would do little to halt the leakage of militarily important technology. Shapiro took part in a National Academy of Sciences study of this leakage. He said the panel found that ''. . . the open scientific literature accounted for minor, if any, flow of scientific communication to the Soviet Union of any military significance. . . . We could not find a single example. . . . The intelligence agencies could not produce one.''

Thus concerned scientists and scientific administrators such as Carey, Shapiro, and Unger now look to Congress and the Reagan administration to refine the restrictions so that they focus more tightly and effectively on the real leakage, which is mainly through trade in electronic equipment.

Currently, restrictions on scientific information are implemented mainly through export regulations, such as those issued by the Department of Commerce or imposed under the International Trade in Armaments Regulations (ITAR) law. These regulations are being applied to scientific literature and presentations at scientific meetings even within the United States. There have been embarassing incidents of speakers being pressured to withdraw their papers just prior to presentation.

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The ITAR enabling law is up for renewal within a few months. This is an opportunity for reform.

Shapiro said he hopes the law will be ''streamlined, focused more narrowly, and be made much more effective in that narrow area.'' At the same time, he added, it should ''give a general license, so to speak, to (traditional) scientific communication.''

Fortunately, the scientists are not just talking to themselves. A DOD-University Forum has been organized to open a dialogue between the scientific community and the Department of Defense. Institutions such as the National Academy of Sciences and the AAAS also work with administration officials and the Congress.

This is an issue where there is basic agreement that truly damaging technological leaks must be stopped. It should be possible, then, to tighten up export controls while preserving the scientific freedom that is essential to the national strength. Deep-frozen zoo

If you want to preserve endangered plant or animal species, you may want to stop what Peter Mazur calls ''biological time'' - in other words, induce suspended animation.

A biologist with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Mazur says deep-freezing will do the job. This has been talked about for decades. However, Mazur told a session of the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, that biological engineers are beginning to make the process practical.

He explained that both freezing and thawing are delicate procedures. Done too quickly or too slowly, they can be lethal. But done properly, living cells and embryos can survive for thousands of years if held at temperatures below -150 degrees C. (-302 degrees F).

It now seems likely that procedures can be worked out for cells to survive the freezing and thawing, Mazur said. He added that low-temperature storage itself ''presents no problems.''

Already, he noted, some laboratories are storing rare mice as frozen embryos. (A human embryo has been successfully frozen and thawed, and it is now maturing in a human mother in Australia.)

Mazur said that it might be wise to preserve a variety of germ plasm of livestock as a resource for future breeding. He also noted that ''some investigators are looking into freezing as one possible way to preserve endangered species from extinction.''

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