In the ongoing debate over how to stem the loss of US know-how to the Soviet Union, the National Academy of Sciences has come down on the side of ''security by accomplishment,'' not secrecy.
''The short-term security achieved by restricting the flow of information is purchased at a price,'' warns the recently published report of a special panel of the academy's Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy. It explains: ''To attempt to restrict access to basic research would require casting a net of controls over wide areas of science that would be extremely damaging to overall scientific and economic advance as well as to military progress.''
This is the most authoritative warning yet that the United States has taken a dangerous course in trying to put security controls on what has been open and nonsecret research.
There is wide agreement that military and industrial secrets should be protected. There is little questioning of the traditional freedom of most basic scientific research. The concern is over a rather ill-defined gray area of research that is nonsecret but that could have industrial or military usefulness over the next few years.
With no clear policy to guide them, US government efforts to control such information have led to a number of embarrassing incidents. East-bloc scientists have been refused permission to attend open, international scientific meetings in the US. Universities have been pressured to restrict access to research, lectures, or classes for foreign visitors or students - pressures that have been resisted. Most recently, about 100 papers reporting nonsecret work funded by the Department of Defense were suddenly withdrawn from an international symposium of the Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers in San Diego in August. The department wanted tighter security review of such material. But presidential science adviser George A. Keyworth II called the move ''unfortunate and ill-timed.''
The NAS panel is concerned that such ''unfortunate'' clampdowns could undermine US research which depends on free information flow. Acknowledging a need to safeguard technical know-how with important military implications, it urged that academic research especially should remain free. It noted that ''in comparison with other channels of technology transfer (such as trade or espionage), open scientific communication involving the research community does not present a material danger . . . .''
Meanwhile, the National Science Board, the policymaking body of the National Science Foundation, has also stressed the importance of free and open exchange of scientific knowledge. The health of US science depends on it, the board said.
The administration should heed these warnings. A sound national policy, worked out with the research community, is urgently needed to guide what information control is necessary. And this should take account of the NAS panel's main conclusion that the ''limited and uncertain benefits'' of controls are ''outweighed by the importance of scientific progress, which open communication accelerates, to the overall welfare of the nation.''