APS News

Truth, Justice, and the American Way

The Intersection of US Security and the Universality of Science

Irving A. Lerch, APS International Affairs

"Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world. Science is the highest personification of the nation because that nation will remain the first which carries the furthest the works of thought and intelligence."

— Louis Pasteur

In stentorian 19th century tones, Pasteur expressed anew sentiments first promulgated in the 16th century by the philosopher-politician Sir Francis Bacon and given cogency in the 20th century by philosopher-scientists Thomas Kuhn and Michael Polanyi: that science is a collective enterprise which flourishes in an environment of open, unfettered exchange.

But the 20th century has amplified another aspect of science that is equally cogent: science is the raw material of immense national power-economic and military. The battle for the soul of American science is epitomized in a question: How do we protect the national interest while nurturing the very source of our nation's strength? The science that built the first atomic bomb was born in the minds of physicists, chemists and engineers from the US, Germany, Italy, Hungary, the UK and elsewhere. In addition, fully 80% in the growth of our economy is technology driven, much contributed by immigrants and visitors to our nation's research universities and government and industrial laboratories. This was illustrated in our March Centennial meeting in Atlanta: of 48 awards and prizes, 17 were given to naturalized US citizens, 10 to foreign colleagues (many of whom studied and worked in the US) and 21 to US born citizens (many of whose parents and grandparents emigrated to this country in the years between the world wars).

The post-Cold War debate now focuses on the intersection of the globalization of science, our national security and halting the spread of nuclear weapons technologies. The controversy engulfing the Los Alamos weapons lab concerning the alleged loss through espionage of nuclear weapons secrets threatens to throttle the exchanges which have so benefitted the non-defense research of all Energy Department labs. And while Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has promised to fight calls to close the labs against foreign visits [See APS News, May 1999, p.1], recent hearings on the Hill along with proposals for extreme security measures have soured the climate. One colleague in a non-weapons lab complained that many visitors-all of whom are invited-were being treated like "criminals."

Equally troubling has been the increasing use of the technology transfer provisions of the Immigration and Naturalization Act to curtail the granting of visas to visiting scientists and students. The "Glenn Amendment"-enacted into law to prevent the spread of weapons technologies-is being used to curtail visits by Indian and Pakistani scientists even though applicants are not known to be involved in weapons programs and their specialties have no discernible applications in weapons design. The enforcement of this law required the publishing of an "entities list" of institutions deemed to have played a role in the development of nuclear weapons. All applicants with ties to these institutions-which encompasses the entirety of the elite scientific establishments of India and Pakistan-must be reviewed by an interagency task group in Washington, DC. The result is that a number of students and scientists have been denied entry. At the same time, the DoE has barred the travel of Department scientists to India to attend purely scientific meetings.

The impact on students can be devastating. Last summer, a young assistant in the Nehru Center for Advanced Scientific Research, was denied a visa to take up graduate studies for a PhD degree at Stanford University. His chosen field is condensed matter theory. He was denied a visa owing to the INA technology transfer provisions because at the time, he was a temporary employee at the Indian Institute of Science (one of the institutes on the "entities list" whose campus includes the Nehru Center). This promising young scientist will probably pursue his studies in Canada or Europe.

In March, a Chinese physicist invited to visit Northwestern University was delayed several weeks in obtaining a visa. Upon inquiry, the local Congresswoman, Janice Schakowsky, was informed by the Consul in our Tokyo embassy: "Applicants who are nationals of the Peoples Republic of China, and who will be involved in an activity related to materials technology, need an advisory opinion from the State Department before we can issue a visa." This includes the largest category of Chinese scholars-one that accounts for thousands of students and researchers. Widely applied, the policy could desolate important areas of US research. The theory of this provision of the INA is that such visits result in a hemorrhage of US technology. The reality is that the talent and industry of such visitors contributes to the advance of the US-and the worldwide-technology base.

Such visa reviews often delay travel beyond the date of the meeting they seek to attend. This was the case in March when a distinguished Chinese physicist sought a visa to participate in the General Assembly of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics convened in Atlanta the week before the Centennial.

Very disquieting is the growing perception that certain visitors, immigrants and their descendants constitute a danger to the US. The Los Alamos imbroglio which has incriminated a Taiwanese-born American, has led newspapers around the country to impugn the patriotism and loyalty of Chinese-Americans, a deplorable reminder of the war-time hysteria which sent Japanese-Americans into internment camps during World War Two. As we all must acknowledge, Chinese-Americans have made a glorious contribution to our culture, science, technology and security and it is shameful and unjust to claim otherwise.

We have an obligation and a duty to assure our national security and to prevent defense secrets from falling into unfriendly hands. Many of us have served in our armed forces and know the terrible cost to be borne in maintaining our liberties. But we can never achieve our objective of safeguarding our security and increasing the knowledge infrastructure on which that security and our prosperity is founded by shackling and isolating our science. It is too easy to succumb to timidity and opt for the cheap way out-to accept the illusion that it is better to live safely in a prison than to toil diligently in the open air.

"As long as men are free to ask what they must, free to say what they think, free to think what they will, freedom can never be lost and science can never regress."
- J. Robert Oppenheimer

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette