Adventures in Ethics and Science

In the July 16 issue of Chemical & Engineering News (secure behind a paywall), the article “FBI Reaches Out to Campuses” [1] caught my attention. The gist of it is that academic scientists are increasingly the targets of foreign espionage, where the stakes have less to do with national security than potentially huge economic losses. The FBI would like to help academic scientists avoid being dupes and giving scientists in other countries an unfair advantage.

From the article:

[FBI chief of counterintelligence strategy Thomas J.] Mahlik notes that classified research usually starts off as unclassified, often in a university environment. Traditionally, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have focused on classified information only and would react after a leak had occurred. “In that case, it’s too late,” Mahlik says. “The secret’s gone.”

In an effort to stem such losses, the FBI in 2005 launched the Counterintelligence Domain Program. The domain in question is research, information, and technologies that are not classified but still have potentially critical importance to U.S. economic and military power. The goal of the program is to reach out to researchers and build relationships, especially with an academic community historically wary of law enforcement.

“We know that a number of academic institutions are, in fact, of keen interest to foreign competitors around the world,” Mahlik says. “These foreign competitors do not think twice about acquiring blueprints or data–prepublication, prepatent, prelicensing, preclassification–straight from research locations.

Thus, one component of the counterintelligence program is the Academic Alliance. Directed at U.S. colleges and universities, the goal is not to dictate to researchers what they should and should not do, but to foster communication between national security agencies and the researchers generating technology.

That communication is a two-way street. What the FBI and other agencies want to relay to schools is what the agencies know about potential threats to campus security, for example, foreign students, travel concerns, identity theft, and cyber intrusions. What those agencies would like to hear in return is about anything unusual: thefts of dual-use instruments such as fermenters, a foreign scientist taking proprietary documents when traveling home, or a student actively researching technology outside the scope of his or her research project.

Communication sounds like a good thing. If the feds know that the new postdoc arriving in your lab isn’t who she’s supposed to be (because the person you thought you were hiring was the victim of identity theft), that would be useful information to have. Similarly, if you notice one of your students buying lots of chemicals from the stockroom that have no use in your lab’s research but that could be quite useful in, say, bomb-making, keeping the FBI in the loop might be a good idea.

Not that the FBI wants you to be paranoid. Indeed, Mahlik stressed setting up normal channels for communication as a way to avoid paranoia.

Part of this communication has involved the FBI learning about the culture of academic research from a number of administrators (who were themselves professors and researchers) at research universities. These university denizens have emphasized, for example, that blanket restrictions on the use of advanced technologies by foreign nationals could spell doom for U.S. science departments whose researchers include foreign-born students, postdocs, and faculty.

Of course, being asked to “keep an eye out for unusual activity” is a vague enough instruction that you’re bound to pick up some false positives:

For example, a foreign-born scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory was flagged because he worked only late hours, without staff support, on a sensitive project using cutting-edge instrumentation. But an investigation revealed that his experiments needed extremely consistent water pressure–so he worked in the middle of the night when it was less likely someone would flush a toilet.

And the baseline for “normal behavior” may be hard to establish for grad students trying to get their experiments to work before their funding runs out, and for postdocs stressed about whether they will ever land a “real job” in their field (let alone have time for a “real life”). Still, if PIs started consciously paying more attention to the patterns in their labs, and the day-to-day doings of the people working in those labs, it might foster more connection and communication in the immediate community of the lab group. Is the interest of the FBI what it takes to achieve that? So be it.

A bit more from the article:

Michael Beck, executive director of University of Georgia’s Center for International Trade & Security … is concerned that if there isn’t better communication with federal counterintelligence agencies and a security breach results, more regulations and restrictions on universities will result. “The repercussions will be huge,” he says, adding, “I think it’s in the interest of the university community” to develop more of a security culture.

While I can see the practical side of this — no university wants more federal regulations to wade through, and no scientist whose research might lead to “commercialization options” wants to be robbed — this feels like a further step down a path on which academic science may already have gone a few steps too far. The FBI is not arguing for freer communication between scientists but for more restricted communication. Science is not being viewed as a project in which all participants are working toward a common goal — more accurate knowledge about the phenomena in our world — but rather as a scientist vs. scientist race to the finish line (where if you don’t make it first, you certainly don’t want some scientist from another country to get to the finish before one of your compatriots).

It’s enough to make you want to undertake basic research aimed only at improving our understanding — because if there’s no obvious way to make money off your findings, at least it should be less attractive to thieves.

[1]Jyllian Kemsley, “FBI Reaches Out to Campuses” Chemical & Engineering News, Volume 85, Number 29, July 16, 2007, pp. 26-27.


  1. #1 researcher
    August 1, 2007

    i am a little bit disappointed at this article, which really gives a bad impression about Chinese students/scholars/professors…