Dan Kevles has an essay in Technology Review on biotech’s big chill. Most comparisons between the Patriot Act and McCarthyism are overblown rhetoric; Dan, on the other hand, is one of the guys on postwar American science, and knows an awful lot about the way scientific research was affected by security concerns in the Cold War. If he raises the spectre of McCarthy, listen up.
But the new restrictions, and those on the horizon, may pose difficulties for contemporary biology that are far more chilling than those that beset early Cold War physics. The current constraints on foreign students and visitors in the name of national security have already worked serious unintended consequences for American science, engineering, and medicine, according to the presidents of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine, in a December 2002 statement protesting the governments policies. Censorship of sensitive unclassified research threatens worse effects, by menacing open communication in numerous biomedical areasincluding the study of disease and the immune system. It could thus, some experts charge, threaten researchers abilities to engineer therapies and curesand that could place the very competitiveness of the nations biotechnology industry in peril….
[I]n several ways todays biologists face more difficult obstacles than physicists did in the early Cold War. Then, a scientist was made suspect by his or her political affiliations. In principle, suspicion could be allayed by repudiations of past political behavior and renunciation of current allegedly dubious activity. In contrast, what makes a scientist suspect today is his or her nationality, which is difficult to modify, or ethnicity, which is unchangeable. There is no appeal against the denial of access to selected biological agents on the basis of nationality; it applies absolutely without exception…. Visa delays and denials have already interfered with or caused the cancellation of important international conferences, disrupted careers, and slowed research projects– including, according to media reports, an anti-HIV drug, a vaccine against the West Nile virus, and sensors to detect biowarfare agents.