Proposed muzzles on research freedom could retard US technology

By , Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.

AS presidential science adviser George A. Keyworth II notes, the US government is on a collision course with itself in trying to regulate the free flow of information in basic research at universities.

Legislation to renew export controls, now working its way through the Congress, could put a damper on discussion of work within a vaguely defined, but otherwise nonsecret, ''sensitive'' category. An export license would be required for such discussion. Export would include talking about sensitive subjects at professional society meetings or in classes when foreign nationals are present, as well as publication in scholarly journals.

The other major threat to research freedom comes in the guise of increased funding for university research from the Department of Defense (DOD). Tempting grants would be tied to contracts giving the DOD the right of prepublication review - perhaps even censorship - of nonsecret research deemed potentially sensitive from its point of view.

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This is anathema to the university research community, which rightly views the free flow of information as the life-blood of its work. It also undercuts the Reagan administration's policy of strongly supporting scientific research as an essential element of national strength.

The problem is that this important issue is seen from two different perspectives within the government. Discussing this during a recent interview, Dr. Keyworth explained: ''On the one hand, the Defense Department sees that every single step the Soviets take in developing a new weapons system is based upon a prior step taken in the United States. And they are correct in that observation. On the other hand, probably the strongest leg in this nation's stool (i.e., in its national strength) . . . is our own unquestioned leadership in science. . . . Now, if we constrain our universities, and the creative environment in which we train that talent, then I believe we will threaten that very strong leg. . . .''

When it was pointed out that university scientists and administrators worry about that very threat, Keyworth replied, ''So do I. So do I.'' He added that he is determined to see that universities are not so constrained and that President Reagan has said they should not be constrained.

The basic context within which the issue now is discussed was laid out by the National Academy of Sciences in its report on Scientific Communications and National Security about a year and a half ago. The study - headed by Dale R. Corson, president emeritus of Cornell University - noted that universities are an insignificant factor in the information leakage problem. It recommended minimum restraints, concluding that ''limited and uncertain'' benefits of controls are ''outweighed by scientific progress.''

Much lip service was paid to the recommendations at the time. However, in an unofficial update earlier this year, Mitchell B. Wallerstein and Lawrence C. McCray of the Academy of Sciences reported that, far from following the study recommendations, some agencies such as the DOD have become even more restrictive.

Such attempts at restraint have not yet pinched very hard. Indeed, Keyworth notes that much of the concern that has been expressed so far has been based more on fear of what might happen than on the few cases where there has been a clampdown. ''The Department of Defense has taken no action on the Corson panel's recommendations. We (the Office of Science and Technology Policy) chair the panel that is doing that. And I think what is going to come out is going to be very, very similar to the Corson . . . recommendations.''

Concerned members of the university community hope that is true. But they have already seen enough of a threat, especially in the DOD proposal for control through research contract, for the presidents of the California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Stanford University to have sent a strong letter of protest about this proposed policy to Undersecretary of Defense Richard DeLauer.

There also is concern about the possible corrupting influence of DOD money tied to information restriction. A few universities have reaffirmed policies of refusing contracts with such strings attached. But there apparently are officials within DOD who believe that some scientists and administrators will compromise their scruples for the sake of the money.

Robert M. Rosenzweig, president of the Association of American Universities, referred to this last month during a conference on research funding held by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He said, ''There are those in government who . . . believe scientists and their universities will put their principles aside and take the money. It is important to get the message across that this isn't so.''

It is time for this troublesome issue to be put to rest. The administration should make it clear that, as Dr. Keyworth states, the universities are not to be needlessly constrained by censorship in what has traditionally been an arena of freedom. Meanwhile, the uncertainty and fear that have been aroused continues to poison ''the creative environment in which we train . . . talent.''

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