A considerable divide, often seen manifest through science and technology policies and regulations, exists between the scientific community and the national security community. As an inherently forward-thinking group, the scientific community favors change, progress, and innovation; conversely, the national security community, concerned about matters of defense and its capacity to counter foreseen threats and challenges, favors the preservation and protection of a status quo for which it is accustomed and prepared. Change, especially unexpected change, is therefore considered threatening. The scientific community values, and indeed strives upon, collaboration, the open exchange of ideas, and the flow of knowledge. The national security community, on the other hand, values secrecy and control of information, lest it fall into the “wrong hands.” In this context, the dual-use nature of technology and knowledge puts pressure on the government to strike a balance between supporting its scientific constituents in their research and enabling the national security community to protect the nation by limiting and regulating the technologies and knowledge that research produces. For – as is decidedly the case with our control of the atom, knowledge of the cell, and power of the internet – the products of science have as much capacity to be used for evil, to harm our community, as they can be used for good to enhance our lives. Through a look at the issues of that balance, drawing from examples in the space field as a case-study, this essay examines this divide in the context of science and technology policy.
In the wake of the September 11th attacks, a renewed focus has been placed on protecting the American homeland and guaranteeing the safety of American citizens. Concerns that terrorist groups will utilize products of technological advancement – miniaturized nuclear weapons, biological and chemical agents, and cyberwarfare, to name a few – for harm have manifested themselves in policies and regulations restricting the scope and nature of what the scientific community can study and produce. For example, scientists studying biological agents have found that certain vectors and agents, deemed dangerous and weaponizable by the government despite their research value, have come under tight control and limitation. Meanwhile, continuing anxieties about the capabilities of conventional adversaries such as China, Russia, and Iran have been cause for government-issued controls on the export of particular technologies, limits on the communication and transfer of certain information and knowledge, and restrictions on who can participate in American scientific research and technological development.
Fears about the application of science and technology for malicious purposes are hardly new, however. Since the dawn of the atomic age and the Cold War, which was defined in large part by technological competition between the Soviet Union and the United States, scientists have found themselves under considerable scrutiny by the government and national security sector. Because of its potential application for dangerous purposes, scientific knowledge and know-how can be considered a security risk; this was particularly the case at the height of the ‘McCarthy era’ in the United States. A high-profile example of this, relevant to the space and rocketry field, is that of Tsien Hsue-Shen. A Chinese-born scientist, Tsien was instrumental in laying the foundation of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; his research in fluid dynamics, structures, and engineering is regarded as making possible the United States’ entry into space. Amidst McCarthy-era fears and paranoia, however, he was accused of being a Communist sympathizer and deported to China. In the context of the Cold War security environment, the perceived threat he and his knowledge posed trounced his contributions to American science; ironically, upon his return to China, the Communist Party made full use of his skills – placing him in charge of the Chinese missile program. Tsein’s case is not unique; several scientists living and working in the United States have found themselves come under suspicion because of their work and suspicions of their loyalty. That some have been arrested and deported – both rightly and wrongly – reflects the delicate, occasionally damaging, balance that is struck between security concerns regarding scientists and their pursuit of knowledge.
Related to the concerns levied upon American scientists, the United States government places considerable restrictions upon foreigners who wish to pursue scientific and technological work in the United States. Borne from fears that these individuals may be agents working for other governments and/or that they will take their knowledge and skills back to their home nation upon their works completion, the government frequently prohibits foreigners from engaging in work that has dual-use risk or national security application. In the space field, for example, foreigners are often prohibited from working on technologies related to rockets, as that technology can equally be applied to the production of ballistic missiles. Accordingly, commercial rocket companies operating in the United States require that their engineers and technologists be United States citizens. Foreigners working for NASA or for commercial space companies often find themselves prohibited from entering restricted areas or accessing sensitive information and technology, despite its importance and relevance to their work. Again, this is reflective of the divide between the scientific and security communities; there are understandable security concerns regarding foreigners, especially those with places of origin that may be adversarial to the United States. However, it is equally understandable – and indeed beneficial – that foreigners would wish to pursue scientific and technological work in the United States. Attracting foreign talent and knowledge has historically been a major driver behind the United States’ scientific leadership and resulting technological and economic dominance. This form of open cooperation is native to the scientific mindset. Too restrictive of limitations and regulations on foreign scientists could therefore come at a detriment to scientific progress and economic growth, which may be equally challenging to the country as the possible security risks these scientists represent. Finding how, and where, to strike an appropriate balance for this issue is a continuing debate.
Associated with security concerns about foreign scientists making nefarious use of American scientific work and technology is the field of export control policies. These regulations require that certain items with defense-related uses, or commercial items which could have military applicability, be licensed before they’re exported to certain foreign countries. The security rationale, of course, is to prevent foreign countries or actors from acquiring advanced American-made technology which could then be used for harm; likewise, it is to prevent the reverse-engineering of that technology which would bring possible adversaries to a “level playing-field” with the United States. However, beyond covering simply tangible items and products, export controls also control the information and knowledge related to the export-controlled good. As such, transmitting that information or knowledge to a foreign national is considered an export and must therefore be licensed as well. Because of this, American scientists often face difficulties in collaborating with scientists in foreign countries on topics that are covered by the United States’ export control list. This, of course, reflects the difference in perceptions between the security and scientific communities on the value of information – scientists seek the open flow of information, regardless of with whom, to collaborate and further advance the pursuit of their research; the government sees the open flow of information as a possible source of harm undermining the United States’ technological advantage against enemies.
The issue of export controls is particularly significant and pronounced in the space field. Satellite technology, which obviously has the capability to be used for military purposes, has for decades been under tight control by stringent export regulations. As such, space-related research involving satellites requires scientists to go through the lengthy and difficult licensing process to pursue their research – just to find, as is frequently the case, that they are denied. The effect this has on space science and collaboration has been considerably detrimental. Without the capacity to collaborate with foreigners abroad, American scientists find themselves disadvantaged through limited data sets; this is especially true for space, where foreign satellite capabilities may augment or supplement those of the United States or where the United States is simply lacking in capability. Beyond export controls impacting collaboration between non-government scientists studying space, government regulations have also had serious impact on the capacity for NASA to interact and partner with certain countries in pursuit of space science goals.
Since 2004, when it was mandated in law, NASA has been totally prohibited from partnering, collaborating, or even interacting with the Chinese space program. The rationale behind this prohibition was the same behind export controls in general – a fear that China, as a growing geopolitical competitor and adversary, will take the scientific and technological knowledge gained through partnership and apply it in ways that could disadvantage the United States. This is, seen through a security perspective, an entirely reasonable concern; the Chinese are known for actively reverse-engineering foreign technology and applying it to their military systems. However, because of the prohibition, NASA has been unable to even engage in scientific partnership with the Chinese space program. As China’s program is considerably funded and capable, particularly in the field of telescopes and space observation, this has doubtlessly come at a loss of scientific gain for both nations. Moreover, it has opened the trade space for Chinese space scientists to partner instead with the space programs and scientists of other countries – at the detriment to the United States’ scientific leadership and clout.
As evidenced by these policies and regulations, a divide clearly exists between the scientific community’s pursuit of knowledge and technology and the security community’s concerns that that knowledge and those technologies may be used for harm against the United States. The government, as both a resource for scientists and a protector of the American homeland, has tried to find a balance between this divide through policies that, with the lightest touch possible, limit the degree to which knowledge and technology can be acquired by possible foreign adversaries. Of course, any restriction comes at a loss for scientists, who naturally value completely open communication, information, and collaboration. As can be seen by historical and contemporary example and circumstances, even the most reasoned and rationale security policies can have significant impact on the American scientific community and their work. Such is the result of the unfortunate fact that, even while scientists engage in their work for the betterment of humanity and a greater understanding of the world around us, the products of science are inherently neutral – if an actor wishes to use knowledge or technology for harm, it can often easily be applied toward that end. This is particularly true in the modern day as technologies are rapidly advancing, proliferating, and becoming more capable. Considering that, the divide between these two communities and the policies that manifest as a result are likely to remain.