Ban on access for foreign scientists poses a problem for partnership

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Whatever the ethical merits of the ‘strategic alliances’ programme (see above), a ban on the participation of foreigners — who make up as many as half of the hundreds of research students and staff working at the five university centres involved in the programme — indicates the practical challenges the DOE faces in operating it.

The partnership programme was conceived mainly to restore the supercomputing expertise of the weapons laboratories. Senior laboratory officials admit that their pre-eminence in this field in the 1970s and 1980s has waned with the development of the new, massively parallel computers, which are best understood by young computer scientists outside the laboratories.

Staff and students at the university centres fall into three categories — US citizens, permanent residents and other foreigners. As in most US university computer science and engineering departments, about half the staff and students are non-citizens. Many of the faculty are permanent residents — holders of ‘green cards’ — and are protected by US law against being treated differently from US citizens. Most of the students are not permanent residents.

The DOE has introduced a short-term policy, to remain in force until April, under which no foreign national is allowed access to the laboratory supercomputers or the codes that run on them. According to Michael Heath, head of the Illinois centre, the temporary policy “can't hold in the long run, or the DOE will be in violation of the law”.

Heath says the current situation reflects a difference in perspective between technical staff in the laboratories, who want to open up access, and security officials, who are resisting change in their established procedures.

Matthew McKinzie, the main author of a report drawn up by the National Resources Defense Council, says that the ban on access by foreigners reflects resistance in the intelligence divisions at the laboratories — especially Lawrence Livermore — to the partnership programme, which he says was “imposed on the laboratories” by the DOE.

The energy department is now reviewing the ban. “They understand that it is an issue for all of the centres, and are working hard to solve the problem,” says Daniel Meiron, head of the Caltech centre.

Gilbert Weigand, the DOE's deputy assistant secretary for strategic computing, says the students may be accommodated by giving them access to an unclassified supercomputer facility, which he declined to specify, outside the weapons laboratories.

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