The proposal comes from a report released Oct. 18 by a National Academies committee that held meetings with the research community. The discussions were arranged to gauge whether homeland security concerns have prompted policy changes that are altering the nation's ability to attract scientists and conduct cutting-edge research.
According to the report, the committee was told: "Overly restrictive measures pose the danger that the United States could stultify its own efforts to achieve progress in scientific research by severing long-established ties with the global scientific community. This could undermine, rather than enhance, U.S. security."
Public-access experts said the report's findings are consistent with previous reports on science and national security but reflect more current issues like collaboration with foreign scientists and export controls. The idea of a separate commission also is new.
The commission would be housed within the National Security Council and co-chaired by the national security adviser and the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Appointees would include university administrators, along with representatives from federal research agencies and national security agencies.
The commission would review policies relating to exports, visas, classification categories and other areas that affect scientific discovery. It also would examine deemed exports, which refers to the transfer of controlled information to a foreign national inside the United States, such as a foreign scientist working in a U.S. laboratory. Universities were troubled by recent federal efforts to revise policies that exempt such research from export controls.
Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said that if government officials are attentive and responsive to the concerns of academic researchers, then formal creation of a standing commission might not be necessary. Furthermore, he said, "if officials are not attentive, then a commission might not be useful."
Patrice McDermott, executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, said the concept of a distinct commission is on the right track but suggested that a person "from outside the government and representing the open exchange of information should be in a leadership position."
And while there may be reason to involve some national security representation, McDermott said, it would seem that should be the role of the national intelligence director's office.
"Certainly a bias toward openness has to be the case on any commission that is looking at the overused and undefined categories of pseudo-classification such as [sensitive but unclassified information], for which no controls or limitations and no review processes exist," she said.
But James Carafano, a security expert at the Heritage Foundation, said: "Some folks will want to [have] no oversight at all; others will never be satisfied with any security measure that allows information-sharing. The danger is that in the end, government will do nothing."