After spy charges, foreigners feel unwelcome at labs

Some say reforms brought about by allegations at Los Alamos could

Joe Thompson's research isn't going to compromise American security - the work he does isn't even classified. But the Los Alamos physicist still feels as if he's been under siege since allegations of spying emerged at the lab earlier this year.

One of his foreign scientists left because he no longer felt comfortable working at the lab. He had to withdraw a job offer to a top postdoctoral candidate he had been wooing for almost a year. And he has watched a collaborative project with Rus-sian scientists be postponed indefinitely.

"It is frustrating," says Dr. Thompson.

Reforms enacted after US authorities said they suspected Taiwan-born scientist Wen Ho Lee of passing nuclear secrets to the Chinese have led to great unease in the American scientific community.

While acknowledging the need to safeguard the nation's arsenal, some say the reforms - and a moratorium on new foreign scientists - have created an environment of suspicion that's driving out some of the nation's best scientific minds. The recent arrest of Mr. Lee has only heightened tensions, and Lee now says he will sue the government over breach of privacy.

At stake, say observers, is America's research edge. Lawmakers say the nation's nuclear labs must take every precaution to limit the opportunity for espionage. But scientists counter that foreign collaboration is an integral part of innovation.

With Chinese students - mostly graduates studying science and engineering - now the largest foreign-student group in the US, scientists add that their expertise must be an indispensible part of America's scientific future.

"This will be a long-term effect," says Klaus Lackner, acting associate laboratory director at Los Alamos. "You will end up filling these positions, but you might find out that the caliber might not be as good, and our interactions with the world will suffer as a result of it."

While the moratorium does not affect foreign nationals already working at labs, it affects future foreign employees, collaborators, and visitors. At Los Alamos, the vast majority of such scientists are not those working in classified programs.

"There are areas we cannot work hard enough to secure, and there are areas that are open," he says. "Some of the security limitations have spilled over."

Over the past several months, Congress has passed several bills aimed at tightening security. Apart from the moratorium - which Energy Secretary Bill Richardson can waive for specific scientists - Congress passed a bill that mandated a semiautonomous agency to oversee the nuclear weapons programs more closely.

Meanwhile, Secretary Richardson unveiled a plan to tighten security. Polygraph testing of scientists with access to US nuclear secrets is expected to begin soon, despite widespread complaints about the possible inaccuracies of such testing.

Indeed, many scientists don't agree with the way Congress - and in some cases their own department - has treated the issue. Congress and the laboratory management have been remiss in not setting clear guidelines of security measures, says Irving Lerch, director of international affairs at the American Physical Society. To some, he says, it seems like a witch hunt.

"I believe morale right now is fairly low," says Dr. Lackner.

Although classified research is conducted entirely by Americans, the moratorium means that scientists are now more likely to refrain from even suggesting nonclassified projects with foreign collaboration. They're also less likely to hire talented postdoctoral students from certain countries, unsure of how such personnel will fare in the post-moratorium future.

While the new security measures cover only foreign scientists from sensitive countries such as China and Russia, some feel there has been a security spillover to American scientists of Asian ancestry - particularly naturalized ones. Lee, for instance, is a naturalized American.

"There have been concerns on how to treat foreign versus naturalized versus America-born, but it's basically a matter of perception," says one department official. "When the [espionage] case broke, we found a lot of ambiguity in the policy about foreign scientists ... people were unsure about how to deal with personnel issues."

For its part, the Energy Department has created a special task force to combat racial profiling and said naturalized citizens will not be treated differently. Some Asian American scientists say they found the task force helpful, but others say the problems have not yet been fixed.

"I talked to my Chinese-American colleagues, and they all feel saddened and depressed," says Huan Lee, a theoretical physicist who has worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory as a staff member for more than 20 years.

He recalls, for instance, a Chinese-American colleague who decided to accept early retirement and switch from classified to nonclassified work because of his concerns about the work environment. Feng Gai, a former researcher at the laboratory, says he decided to leave for the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia this autumn, in part because of the incident.

Yet the allegations hold perhaps more importance for the future of American science than they do for the present.

The number of foreign doctoral students is rising, and in some subfields important to Los Alamos research - such as nuclear engineering and nuclear materials - foreign students make up as much as half the student population.

In fact, more than 50,000 students from mainland China - one of the sensitive countries - are now studying in the US, according to the Institute of International Education. It marks the first time any foreign student group numbered more than 50,000. About one-quarter of all physics PhDs are conferred on Chinese students.

If they are worried about being targeted, these foreign students might be less inclined to work at national labs.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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