Proposed Defense Department rules may stifle university research

By: James Hendler

U.S. security and prosperity rests, in great part, on our technological innovation and creativity. Both are nurtured within our research university system. The Defense Department, however, is considering new rules for handling sensitive information that, while intended to strengthen U.S. security, could stifle innovative university research.

The U.S. is the world leader in moving research from science to practice. Our information, life science, energy and materials industries grow out of the complex ecosystem that has developed to fund academic science; move this research via joint funding of universities and companies, and then commercialize these innovations for both military and civilian purposes.

The proposed rule concerns a category of information now referred to as “sensitive but unclassified,” or SBU for short. Research that the U.S. military determines is important for national defense can be made secret — and thus illegal to share. Because of the conditions attached to secret material, most universities either do not permit faculty to work on classified research or limit where and how such work can be done.

For example, accepting classified work on campus puts restrictions on what research results can be published, what research seminars can be taught and which students can be hired to work on research projects.

The government has become increasingly worried in the past decade about whether the current classification laws are sufficient. The new rule would require companies funded by the government to take enhanced measures for safeguarding unclassified Defense Department information. This regulation would “establish secrecy as the presumptive status of unclassified DOD information,” OMB Watch explained. Anything that might lead to military use, the proposal says, should be handled as if it was classified.

Defense Department concerns are understandable. But the proposed rule would create tremendous complications for science as projects move from theory to practice. As new technologies morph into applications, research is often pursued jointly by universities and companies. In these cases, the university must work within the information handling constraints that apply to the company.

Under the proposed rule, a great deal of now-unclassified work would need to be treated as if it were. This could threaten the crucial links between university researchers and the companies that develop new technologies — making the barriers to joint development prohibitively high.

Universities would be unlikely to accept research burdened with the restrictions that come with the new SBU rules. Companies will most likely be in danger of legal action if they don’t enforce them.

Economic effects of the new rule could be significant. SBU research originally conceived of as being potentially useful for the military often can end up leading to revolutionary innovations in civilian technology.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, for example, funded a project in the 1960s to develop technology able to preserve U.S. communications systems in a nuclear attack. This research led to the ARPANet — predecessor of the Internet. Computer algorithms that DOD funded to increase our understanding of these increasingly complex computer networks led to many of the programs that now power Google, Facebook and other Web giants.

Similar stories can be told about engineering breakthroughs from materials developed for the military’s space satellite industry, health breakthroughs from grants awarded jointly by defense and medical funders and breakthroughs in power production growing out of Energy Department research for national defense. In all these cases, and many others, the proposed Defense Department rule would have made the corporate-university partnerships that led to these innovations virtually impossible.

With the U.S. facing strategic and economic insecurity, passing a DOD rule that could affect the pipeline of new research innovations is a risky proposition — one we can ill afford. Especially when our nation needs innovation, new technologies and new job creation more than ever before.

James Hendler is the Tetherless World chairman of computer and cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He is the former chief scientist for the Information Systems Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

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1 Comment
  1. Justin says

    I hope they dont mess up our research we are doing with the website. That would NOT be cool.

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