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Committing to open source in the face of rising research security pressures

Vector lock icon made of digital numbers. Security illustration

Open source is a hallmark of Baskin Engineering, examples being the Genome Browser and the Center for Research in Open Source Software, to name just two. Indeed, limiting restrictions on access to research is fundamental to academic freedom, as codified in 1985 by National Security Decision Directive 189, which states that products of fundamental research should “remain unrestricted” to the “maximum extent possible.” In 2022, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) mandated that results of taxpayer-supported research be publicly available at no cost by 2026. 

Nonetheless, universities are increasingly facing mandates to secure research findings and prevent leaks to countries deemed as adversaries. And pressure to secure research IP is not levied solely in the name of national security. Corporate sponsors routinely impose limitations on how research can be shared. Given the applicability of our research to industries that develop many lucrative technologies, this paradox is experienced acutely in engineering, and threats to academic freedom anywhere are dangerous. Darrell M. West of the Brookings Institute writes concerning laws like the “Stop WOKE Act,” signed in 2022 by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis: “Democratic systems require the free flow of information…. Many of these features are under attack … in the knowledge sector, with ominous consequences for universities, nonprofits, and think tanks.” 

As leaders in the open source movement, Baskin Engineering is helping to counter this dangerous trend where it goes too far. Examples include James Davis (CSE), who received a major grant from the Korean company WISEautomotive that requires all software developed at UC Santa Cruz to remain open source. Another example is software generated in our Cyber-Physical Systems Research Center, which is designed to be open source, enabling broad reuse. And in 2022, UShER, an open-source tool developed by researchers in our Genomics Institute, became the primary method used by health officials worldwide to track COVID-19 variants. This commitment instantiates our ethos as a school and as a campus.

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