Secrecy in Science : Adopting a Policy of Openness as the First Step Toward : Disarmament Would Strengthen Our Relationships With : Our Allies and Illustrate the Advantages of Freedom

July 05, 1987|EDWARD TELLER | From nuclear physicist Edward Teller's recently published book, "Better a Shield Than a Sword: Perspectives on Defense & Technology."

SCIENCE THRIVES ON openness. Researchers should, and often must share their findings. But during World War II we were obliged to put secrecy practices into effect.

After the war, the question of secrecy was reconsidered. Niels Bohr, the greatest physicist of the century, suggested: "In the Cold War each side should use the weapon that it can handle best. Secrecy is the appropriate weapon for a dictatorship; openness is the weapon democracies should use." Bohr was dismissed as a crazy scientist when he carried that message to President Truman and to Winston Churchill. They decided that only information that does not endanger national security should be published. The result was a proliferation of secrecy in science.

After many months of political inaction following Hiroshima, the United States presented the Baruch Plan to the United Nations: The United States would share the secrets of nuclear energy in exchange for all nations agreeing to international control of nuclear power. The plan failed--the Soviets were not interested. That is not surprising, considering that they had probably already guessed our atomic secrets. As I wrote in an atomic alphabet for my young son: " S stands for secret; you can keep it forever. / Provided there's no one abroad who is clever."

But the practice of classification continued; it was our "security," whether it worked or failed.

In 1954, President Eisenhower proposed an international conference to explore the potential peaceful uses of atomic energy. Whether the Soviets participated or not, we would share the information. To do otherwise would have made little sense since scientific secrets do not keep.

We gave away a lot of information at the First Atoms for Peace Conference, and we accomplished a lot. Soviet scientists were delighted to present their achievements; clearly, an earlier refusal to participate in the conference was made by politicians, not scientists. With secrecy on reactor designs lifted, schools of nuclear engineering were established. Industries hired the graduate engineers, and a dozen years later nuclear reactors competed with coal, oil and gas in generating electricity.

The balance of benefit and loss in the first two decades of the nuclear "security" system seems clear: Decisions made with inadequate preparation, self-deception and diplomatic failure prompted the deterioration of cooperation in the free world. Security regulations have also helped drive a wedge between our universities and our military research-and-development effort.

By tainting science with secrecy, an unfortunate public attitude is perpetuated: Science is nobody's business but the scientists'. Encouraging the development of a scientifically literate public is of primary importance to everyone's well-being.

Under present rules, research done in our national laboratories cannot be fully shared with civilian industries. When we fail to expose people to problems they could help solve, we remain unaware of the loss. We now have millions of classified technical documents. We also have falling productivity. Rapid progress cannot be reconciled with central control and secrecy. The limitations we impose on ourselves by restricting information are far greater than any advantage others could gain by copying our ideas.

In addition, by tainting science with secrecy, an unfortunate public attitude is perpetuated: Science is nobody's business but the scientists'. Today, science and technology are part of the life-support system of the world. Encouraging the development of a scientifically literate public is of primary importance to everyone's well-being.

Secrecy is not compatible with science, but it is even less compatible with democratic procedure. Two hundred years ago James Madison said, "A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both." The term credibility gap is a modest description of our monstrous current problem. Of its many secrets, the government has controlled none more rigorously than information about the growth of Soviet weaponry and technical military expertise. But without such knowledge, the question of how much and what kind of defense our nation needs is left to the shifts of political winds.

How can we dismantle this expensive, Gargantuan system of classification? First, we should identify those matters that we quite properly should try to keep secret. We do not want press coverage of delicate diplomatic discussions or premature disclosure of government plans.

But information pertaining to science should be more readily available. For the last century, American industries have had company-private information, which allows dissemination of general knowledge but not the delivery of blueprints to one's competitors. It works because it restricts only the tricks of the trade--ideas that are hard to transfer except by detailed explanation. Information on basic issues remains free.

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