A growing number of scientific and engineering societies are banning foreigners from their meetings for fear of violating federal rules against exporting strategically important technical information.
Major scientific organizations have attacked the meeting restrictions, saying they inhibit the free flow of knowledge necessary for technological progress. In addition, America's closest allies in Western Europe have proposed counter-restrictions on U.S. scientists.
Pentagon security officials, meanwhile, called the measures against foreigners "an overreaction" to efforts to keep defense-related information as well as products from the Soviet bloc. The officials said they are in the process of sending letters to professional societies stating that view.
Nonetheless, some conference organizers insist they have been forced to limit attendance to U.S. citizens because federal officials have disrupted meetings in the past by asserting that technical data on the program was subject to export controls if foreigners were present. The Pentagon, for instance, forced more than 100 papers to be pulled from the program of a 1982 meeting of the Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers by declaring their contents were regulated by International Traffic in Arms Regulations, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
"Until the Department of Defense gets guidelines for technical transfer finished, we are forced to take this stand," said James Slaughter, who is organizing a January meeting for the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME). That meeting -- on the new technology of "composites" -- will be closed to foreigners.
Slaughter was unimpressed by verbal assurances from Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger's aides. "What the secretary says and what some people in his department do are two different things," he said.
At issue are America's attempts to keep information on the frontiers of technology, with military as well as civilian applications, out of the hands of the Soviet bloc.
Most of the attention has been focused on the field of high technology, especially sophisticated computers, but the SME meeting will focus on "composites" -- the melding of metals and ceramics used in high-speed engines, rocket nose cones and space reentry vehicles.
Mitchel B. Wallerstein of the National Academy of Sciences called composites "a hot area of new technology" that has military application and is on the military critical list that requires export controls. The conference is billed as "the composite-manufacturing event of the year."
A report prepared by the European Community (EC) in October listed two meetings last year that banned foreigners: a metal matrix composites course at the University of California at Los Angeles and a polymers workshop at the University of Dayton. In addition, the Society for the Advancement of Materials Process Engineering closed two sessions of its meeting last month, said Wallerstein, who is special assistant for policy and planning in the science academy's office of international affairs.
In the past, Wallerstein said, sensitive information would be limited to meetings sponsored by government agencies, which would only allow those with proper security clearances to attend.
"What is new is that sessions are no longer sponsored by the government but by professional societies, and restricted by the professional societies on their own volition," he added.
He called the new trend "troublesome," and said there is "a certain lack of logic" to admitting scientists to sensitive technical meetings on the basis of passport rather than security clearance.
"I deplore it. I think most scientific societies deplore it. I think it's outrageous," said Robert L. Park, a University of Maryland physics professor who heads the Washington office of the American Physical Society.
"Science is international in nature," he continued. "We pick up as much from others as we give. Often, key information is obtained from foreigners. If we start closing off our meetings, we not only cut them off from science, we cut ourselves off, too."
The American Association for the Advancement of Science also expressed concern "that the societies are in some cases initiating more stringent restraints than the law requires," said Rosemary Chalk, program director of the group's committee of scientific freedom and responsibility.
The Pentagon's Frank Sobieszczyk agreed. "It's an overreaction and something we don't support," said Sobieszczyk, who is Weinberger's assistant for science and technology information.
"Opening meetings to U.S. citizens only doesn't help us in working with allies" who cooperate in American defense efforts, he added. Sobieszczyk said the Defense Department is sending letters to professional societies explaining its position.
The EC parliament has a resolution before it that blames the banning of foreigners from American conferences on "growing nationalism surrounding technology, whereby the U.S.A. hopes to achieve economic and technological supremacy," and suggests "countermeasures" against American scientists trying to attend European meetings.
"It was an extremely difficult decision, and I think we thought about it quite a bit," Slaughter said of the January conference he is arranging for the SME.
He said the SME recognized the possibility of repercussions from its European allies, but decided that the closed meeting was the only way to ensure that the latest information is reported at its conference without problems with federal export restrictions.
He acknowledged that the society's action is only "a token effort" that merely shifts the responsibility for complying with the export requirements from conference officials to Americans attending the meetings, some of whom may work for foreign governments or companies.
He said every delegate signs a form that declares information at the conference falls under U.S. export restrictions and tells them not to transfer any data to foreign nations without a license.
"The responsibility then falls on the attendees . . . who can expect prosecution" if they violate the laws, Slaughter said.
The penalty for revealing protected information can be as much as 10 years in jail and a $250,000 fine if the technical data is controlled for national security reasons.