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Universities Chafe under R&D Constraint

Government restrictions on performing and publishing research are unjustified

May 17, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 20


A long with foreign student visa problems, tight budget problems, and workforce pipeline problems, research universities are facing another challenge from the federal government. This is the tendency, growing over the past three years, for the government to include language in research awards that restricts either the publication of the research results or the use of foreign nationals to produce the research, or both.

A recent study of this problem by the Association of American Universities (AAU) and the Council on Government Relations (COGR), an association of research universities, shows clearly that the restrictions are pervasive and that they are not going away. The report was sent to Office of Science & Technology Policy Director John H. Marburger III in the hope that it could lead to development of policies easing the problem.

The AAU/COGR study chose 20 research universities, small and large, scattered geographically, asking each to report instances where "troublesome clauses" were included in government awards, contracts, and subcontracts handed down through industry. The review covered a six-month period from late 2003 to early 2004.

In that short time, these universities reported 138 restrictive clauses in research awards with which they were asked to agree. Of these, 105 in some way prevent publication of research results without prior approval and 29 place restrictions on foreign nationals working on the project.

The issue here is that such restrictions openly conflict with the Administration's stated policy on conduct of fundamental research. This policy, first published in 1985 as National Security Decision Directive 189, says, in part, "No restrictions may be placed upon the conduct or reporting of federally funded fundamental research that has not received national security classification, except as provided in applicable U.S. statutes."

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, this policy was clearly affirmed by the President's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice. In a letter dated Nov. 1, 2001, to Harold Brown of the Center for Strategic & International Studies, Rice wrote: "The policy on the transfer of scientific, technical, and engineering information set forth in NSDD-189 shall remain in effect, and we will ensure that this policy is followed."

To date, there has been little done to resolve this fairly obvious conflict between the avowed Administration policy on the openness of fundamental research and the demands that federal sponsors are putting on universities. In response to the AAU/ COGR report, for example, Marburger blandly said the study will help federal agencies develop research practices consistent with security needs.

Interestingly, the report indicates that many of the universities, usually after lengthy negotiations, accepted some sort of restrictions on the proposed research. For example, of the 47 contracts that included publication restrictions, 37 were accepted, with half being modified before the university agreed. Three universities rejected awards, and the rest are pending.

There is an even more obscure wrinkle in this. According to the AAU/COGR study, if a university accepts these restrictions on foreign national participation, "institutions may be required to seek and be granted export control licenses to allow their own graduate students and postdoctoral students and faculty who are foreign citizens to participate in the research projects." This is because the information these persons would acquire would be "deemed" an export. Getting these export licenses from the Commerce Department can take years and would have significant negative effects on any research program.

The impacts of these restrictions can't really be known, but the universities are beginning to feel their effect. At the recent American Association for the Advancement of Science forum on science policy (C&EN, May 3, page 23), Alice P. Gast, vice president for research and professor of chemical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said MIT is working very hard with faculty so they can understand how the restrictive contract clauses and the export control issues can affect their work. She cautions that these restrictions will put a chill on performance in some areas of research, such as on infectious diseases. In the end, some areas of fundamental research may simply be left behind as scientists refuse to work under federal constraints.

It will not take very long in this hypercompetitive world for the U.S. science and technology advantage to disappear if the government continues to put shackles on research. Indeed, there are many signs that the U.S. is already losing its prominence in world science: decreasing numbers of patents, lower numbers of published research papers, and a falling number of Ph.D.s in science and engineering relative to the rest of the world.

The success of the U.S. research and development enterprise over the past 50 years came in large part because of the open federal funding of university basic research and the willingness of researchers to accept the talents of the best minds, wherever they came from. The free exchange of ideas is the most basic tenet of science. Government restrictions on this exchange are positively incompatible with academic research. Let's hope science leaders, like Marburger, recognize the seriousness of these challenges and move quickly to do away with these "troublesome clauses."

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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