In trying to keep its advanced technology at home, the United States continues to ''shoot itself in both feet.'' The metaphor comes from William D. Carey, executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). He used it last May during the AAAS annual meeting to warn that unreasonable controls on unclassified research can be self-defeating. Indications of those counterproductive effects continue to surface.
One of the endangered feet on which the US research enterprise stands is the aid of friendly foreign partners. Currently, such nations are being excluded from what otherwise is open research. In some instances, the exclusion ordered by one US agency that controls information ''export'' frustrates the policy of a sister agency.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) space-station planning is a case in point. NASA has hoped to make this an international project with Western Europe, Japan, and Canada participating. This would both broaden the base of expertise and spread the cost of design studies and perhaps of the station itself.
But, since last fall, the Department of State has refused to issue the export permits that would allow US companies to share ideas with companies in the prospective partner nations. What is even more ludricrous, in March the European Space Agency (ESA) was banned from a NASA space-station conference. This is the kind of conference in which ESA representatives would normally participate. ESA has its own space-station study and could have made a substantial contribution. Commenting on this situation, the ESA study director, Jacques Collet, was quoted last week in Science as saying: ''The United States is going to have to solve this technology-transfer problem if it hopes to go to a cooperative endeavor on the space station.''
The other foot - indeed the strong right foot - of US research is also in jeopardy. This is the creativity and vigor that come from free and open discussion at home, especially in our universities. Such traditional freedom has been under attack for several years as agencies of the Departments of Commerce, Defense, and State press to exclude foreign students and researchers from certain unclassified areas, such as microelectronics. Presidents of major research universities have been resisting this pressure and speaking out against it. But the situation continues to be threatening enough for Paul Gray, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, again to issue a strong statement.
The occasion was a recent meeting of US and foreign business leaders at MIT. Gray feels concerned enough about the danger to distribute his remarks widely to the press.
He said that those who would try to protect US technological strength by restricting the openness of nonmilitary, nonsecret scientific research simply do not understand ''the degree to which quality and progress in science depend on openness and sharing of information within the educational and research communities. . . . Excessive defensive maneuvers,'' he warned, ''. . . would dull the very technological edge we seek to protect.''
Gray explained that ''within the universities, research depends upon open, informal communication and discussion of ideas, possible new approaches, research results - a communal building toward new concepts and, ultimately, new applications.'' He added that ''a departure from this principle in certain fields would mean many institutions would be unwilling to work in those areas, leading to a loss of effort and, most critically, a loss of educated young people in just those areas the government is trying to defend.''
It would be easy to conclude that some federal agencies have become paranoid about technology leakage. But the situation appears to be more one of confusion and chaos. Something like 44 different groups in 10 different agencies currently administer the controls or are studying the issue.
The federal government needs to get its act together. It needs a rational policy that will effectively control those few sensitive technologies that should not be leaked to the Soviet Union while continuing to foster the normal course of unclassified research. Meanwhile, the US only weakens itself by cutting off support from friends and undermining university research at home. Magnetic algae
Biologists have found magnets that appear to act as compasses in bacteria, birds, and perhaps even people. Now they have been found in algae, too
The algae (Chlamydomonas pleichloris) live in a lagoon near Rio de Janeiro called Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas. Like magnetic bacteria, the algae use their compasses to swim along the force lines of Earth's magnetic field.
Lins de Barros and co-workers at the Centro Brasileiro de Pasquisas Fisicas e Instituto Oswaldo Cruz who discovered the algae, had not yet found the little plant's magnetic material when they released their report. But they have definitely shown that a magnetic sensor is involved. In bacteria, tiny magnets can be seen under the microscope.
This finding shows that a magnetic sense useful for navigation - already known to be widespread in the animal kingdom - also exists in some plants, at least at the level of single-cell organisms. Tide-produced quakes
Earth scientists have long speculated as to whether or not tides can trigger earthquakes. There is little evidence to link the two kinds of event. However, two California geophysicists have found an intriguing correlation between tides and certain California quakes.
S. Kilston of Hughes Aircraft Company and L. Knopoff of the University of California at Los Angeles explain in Nature that large shocks with epicenters between 33 and 36 degrees north latitude are a curiosity. For this restricted sample, they find significant 12-hourly, fortnightly, and 18.6-yearly cycles of occurrence - rhythms that reflect those of the sun and moon. The quakes are also significantly correlated with the times and orientations of daily and semidaily tidal stresses while the fortnightly rhythm is associated with the ocean tides.
The scientists emphasize that they have made a limited study with few data. Thus they report their finding as ''a subject of some curiosity'' that may well warrant follow-up investigation.