Don't build walls around scientific discovery

The free flow of information and ideas is vital to the advancement of science and technology. No nation has provided better proof than the United States. To maintain America's leading contribution to the world in these fields, the freedom of inquiry and research must be protected against new pressures for secrecy coming from both the private and governmental sectors. Fortunately, protective efforts are underway, with at least some cooperation from these sectors themselves. Such efforts must be vigorously pursued not only in the name of constitutional rights but in the name of the very commercial and national security needs supposed to be served by the new secrecy.

Note that officially classified ''secret'' information is not the issue here. The scientists and universities trying to protect their freedom are not trying to escape the responsibility for protecting classified secrets.They are trying to prevent restraints on the fruitful exchange of information under heavy financing by private companies seeking to keep results of research to themselves-- or under initiatives by government agencies seeking to keep even unclassified information away from potential adversaries.

Last week a conference of university presidents and genetic engineering company executives took a step toward clarifying responsibilities in commercial arrangements between private companies and educational institutions. They came up with guidelines for fashioning agreements that, among other things, ''do not promote a secrecy that will harm the progress of science.'' Here is something to build on--the more effectively so if the discussion expands to include independent voices concerned about the commercial impact on universities accepting more and more agreements under the economic gun.

This week governmental pressures for secrecy of unclassified information came to the fore again when Adm. Bobby Inman, deputy director of the CIA, appeared at a congressional hearing. He renewed his January call for the scientific community to place voluntary restrictions on itself or risk governmental restraints.

Already a number of universities have had to resist Washington efforts to change their practices on foreign scholars' access to unclassified information. Stanford, for example, was asked to restrict certain kinds of technical data from Chinese students and a Soviet robotics specialist--one whose work, incidentally, is said to have significantly aided American progress in the field. Stanford refused, noting that no secret or classified research is permitted on the campus.

Two panels of public and private officials have been set up to consider the matter of scientific freedom and national security needs. They properly want to avoid a collision course between government and the researchers it depends upon to ensure that the nation's defenses stay up to date.

Their work is important, because freedom of ideas and security are not opposed but inseparable. A group of university presidents put it well some time ago when protesting an effort to impose export restrictions on university research activities:

''Restricting the free flow of information among scientists and engineers would alter fundamentally the system that produced the scientific and technological lead that the government is now trying to protect and leave us with nothing to protect in the very near future. The way to protect that lead is to make sure the country's best talent is encouraged to work in the relevant areas, not to try to build a wall around past discoveries.''

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