The Reagan administration has sounded an alarm, louder than any before, over the shrinking of the technological lead we once enjoyed in our military competition with the Russians and the contribution our technology has made to those Russian gains.
It is undeniable that the Russian military machine is gaining on ours in sophistication, and in some areas may have surpassed us, complicating our security problems. And it is undeniable that in some part the Russians have gained on us by capitalizing on our technology, procured by means both fair and foul.
Thus, we must take a hard look at the matter. The process for controlling the flow of military-related technology should be examined and improved where it is found wanting. And we should ensure that the penalties for illicit transfer of restricted technologies are costly enough to outweigh any gain the Russians might be prepared to offer.
At the same time, we should not let our zeal in attacking this problem blind us to the damaging consequences of excess. In recent years we have seen growing efforts to use the Export Administration Act-- which expires in September and thus will provide a forum for debate on this issue-- to stifle the free exchange of unclassified basic scientific knowledge among scholars in the belief that by doing so we will deny the Russians further opportunity to improve their armed might at our expense. These efforts not only proceed from an erroneous premise, they will if successful eventually erode our security.
The premise that underlies efforts to limit the exchange of basic scientific findings is that as the Russians learn what we know and they don't of science which has potential military or strategic value, they will eventually put it to use to our harm. The sorts of basic scientific knowledge that have been the objects of such concern range from very sophisticated areas of physics to basic research in electronics, computers and crop projections.
The premise observes no distinction between the ideas of science that may eventually find their way into the technology of war and technology and technological processes with ready military application. But that distinction is critical. There is no doubt that we are put in jeopardy when the Russians come into possession of our military technology, particularly when it is superior to theirs. But the premise that sees similar jeopardy arising from their access to our basic science has been examined and found wanting.
Last year a distinguished panel of the National Academy of Sciences, in a report entitled "Scientific Communication and National Security," recognized that the Russian military has benefited from the acquisition of Western technology, but concluded that "universities and open scientific communication have been the source of very little of this technology transfer problem." This finding was not speculative. Several members of the panel who were government consultants with high security clearances were given an "all sources" briefing on the subject, which means that the whole intelligence community produced all that it had.
But this finding does not reassure everyone. The advocates of controls argue that the risk of the Russians' eventually capitalizing on what they learn from our scientific dialogue cannot be dismissed merely because we haven't proven that it has yet materialized. This is a life-and-death struggle. Why chance arming our enemies?
The academy panel anticipated this, noting that "current proponents of stricter controls advocate a strategy of security through secrecy." The panel gave as its modest view that "security by accomplishment may have more to offer as a general national strategy." One would wish that the scientists on the panel had been more assertive in protection of the need for free exchange of ideas in their tradition, for the stakes are greater than security from our foes, they embrace the need to be secure against self-inflicted harm to our basic values.
But even on a narrow conception of security, which asks how we maintain as well as we can our scientific advantage in competing with the Russians, "security by accomplishment," which assumes that science will serve our security needs best if it continues to operate unfettered by government-imposed constraints, is the only sound course.
There is no reason to believe that we are collectively smarter than the Russians, or that we possess some inherent capacity to do better science. The reasons for the lead we have where we have it over the Russians are rooted in our histories, cultures and systems. Our freedom of scientific interchange allows science to grow at a natural rate, with all who are interested having the chance to test and build. The Russian passion for secrecy and insistence on orthodoxy deprive many of the seeds of scientific advance which are planted there of the nurture that growth in unbounded fields can bring. (I use the word "many" there advisedly, for in some areas, such as advanced mathematics, where no practical applications are foreseen, the Russians are eminent.)
Science is, now more than ever, an enterprise. To be sure, the lone genius still surprises us by taking leaps beyond what others think or know. But most of our gains and growth come from the attention devoted to a problem by many minds, some more able than others, but none as able as the collective whole.
As you reduce the number of minds allowed access to a strain of thought, you slow the progress of its growth. Science also defies compartmentalization. Those who study the basic elements of matter and those who study the cosmos feed off each other. To channel knowledge to those with a "need to know" assumes a command of eternal relationships that no one possesses. Science knows no such boundaries.