Muzzling science

I know the world of universities and research is pretty small in the greater scheme of things, and therefore not discussed much on the TV news or in newspapers. As a result, it may not be obvious how much Federal policies since 9/11 have impacted research and higher education.

For example, consider this comment from a discussion list regarding a venue for the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) conference:

Canada as a north American venue has a lot of appeal for many of our members for various reasons, one of the more important ones being visa issues (most say it’s easier to get visas for Canada than the US, and also some are uncomfortable with the fingerprinting procedure in the US and don’t want to do that).

The AoIR will probably not meet in the US next time. This is happening for other conferences, especially in the newer fields, such as Internet Research.

Put that together with new restrictions on access to scientific and technical information, new barriers for students and researchers from other countries coming to the US, cutbacks in support for research at both the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, gag orders on scientists (as we saw last month at NASA), distortions of scientific findings (as in the global warming case), and politicizing of scientific review committees. The result is a negative climate for research and higher education. The impact is already evident to researchers and those in higher education, and the impact on the larger economy is beginning.

For the European Union, this is a terrific opportunity to surpass the US. They’ve already initiated a major new research program openly promoted as a way to take advantage of the US policies and to lure the most promising young researchers away from the US. It’s also opened doors for India, China, and other countries.

There are of course national security arguments made for each of these new policies. But there is even stronger evidence that they actually weaken national security. For example, the clampdown on access to scientific and technical information is making it harder to develop responses to biological warfare. It’s also very hard to understand how losing our leadership position in science and technology will make us stronger.

What’s perhaps most worrisome is that muzzling people and information in this way means that it is increasingly more difficult to have open debate about the worth of the policies. As with the Patriot Act or the Detainee Treatment Act, the new laws come with criticism-proof provisions.

Someday, we should ask whether the effort to protect what we value is actually destroying it.

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