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'Openness' Needed in MIT Research

An ad hoc committee that studied the "Military Impact on Campus Research" has concluded that a "policy of openness" should govern all research at MIT.

To that end, the committee has urged that programs, projects and research "be evaluated regularly by an external committee consisting of recognized experts reporting to the cognizant members of the administration."

Such an evaluation, the study group said, "should be in addition to the evaluation carried out by the program officers in the supporting agencies and by the corporation visiting committees."

"In a society such as ours in which support can come from several sources, scholars ideally can select their research interests and apply to one or more appropriate supporting agencies," the committee said. "Unfortunately such plural support may be compromised by interagency agreements. One hopes that ethical considerations and the desire to improve the lot of humanity will influence what research is chosen and what sponsorship they accept."

As a corollary, it said, "MIT should reduce its dependence on sponsored research by developing resources which will permit scholars to pursue intellectually challenging projects which do not fit into the agendas of supporting agencies."

With respect to research specifically sponsored by the Department of Defense, the committee noted that there is no classified research on the Cambridge campus.

"However," it said, "student research at off-campus laboratories. . . needs to be monitored to avoid the possibility of classification before or when the research is completed."

It added: "The advisors and managers of the off-campus laboratories need to be regularly informed of MIT regulations. It should not be forgotten that all research can be classified by the government at any stage. Although rare, it has happened. One would expect it to be more likely when the research is sponsored by DOD."

The committee found that the fraction of MIT campus research sponsored by the DOD was 16 percent in 1983, 17.4 percent in 1988, and 16 percent in 1991.

The major fraction of the DOD-supported campus research-40 percent-was received by the School of Engineering, the committee said. It added that the Departments of Ocean Engineering, Civil Engineering and Electrical Engineering were the principal recipients, with 62 percent, 43 percent and 31 percent of their total research budgets respectively coming from the DOD in 1991.

Among the laboratories, the committee said, the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the Laboratory for Computer Science, the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems and the Materials Processing Center obtained 81 percent, 59 percent, 84 percent and 50 percent of their support respectively from DOD in 1991."

"This dependence on DOD support makes these departments and laboratories vulnerable to changes in DOD support," the committee noted.

In fiscal 1991, the Department of Defense was the third largest sponsor of campus research, providing $49.1 million.

The committee said it believed that DOD-supported research "is of MIT quality."

"However," it added, "all sponsored research reflects the agenda of the sponsor. One must not permit that agenda to distort an otherwise balanced program."

It continued: "DOD-sponsored research has an additional concern. Accepting DOD support may imply support of DOD national policies, some of which are controversial."

As one example, it mentioned the government's Strategic Defense Initiative for intercepting and destroying ballistic missiles in space, also known as the "Star Wars" program.

The committee, in fact, was asked to give special consideration to the SDI program when the committee was formed in the spring of 1986 by then President Paul E. Gray.

It found that "a minor fraction of MIT campus research is sponsored by the SDI," adding that "a major fraction of the Lincoln Laboratory program is sponsored by the SDI."

In its general summary and conclusions, the committee said it concurred with the conclusions of the Pounds Commission of the Special Laboratories of 1969 that MIT's goals as an institution "include not only education, research and scholarship, but also improving the human condition."

The committee said a project "is appropriate when it takes advantage of educationally useful and intellectually important scientific and technical opportunities."

Noting that the Pounds Commission also emphasized "the existence of an MIT community whose contribution to MIT policies is essential to their formulation and execution," the committee commented:

"Such participation, if it is to be constructive, requires a well-informed community and therefore a policy of openness. We believe that this policy should apply to all sponsored research."

It offered a series of recommendations in this regard-that:

  • ������The support picture for each department and laboratory and for the institution as a whole, and in what way that picture is compatible with the goals of the department, should be readily available and circulated to the MIT faculty, staff and students.
  • ������There should be departmental and school seminars on their research support and its implications.
  • ������Each graduate research assistant, graduate research fellow, post-doctoral fellow, etc., should be informed by a statement in their appointment letter at the time of his or her appointment of the nature of their support, the supporting agency and the goals of the supported research.
  • ������Information regarding the careers of MIT graduates should be readily available through recommended regular surveys of recently employed graduates to find out what they are doing and under what sponsorship.

The report of the committee was submitted by its chairman, Institute Professor Emeritus Herman Feshbach. Previous chairs included Professors William F. Brace and Arthur C. Smith.

The other members of the committee were:

Professors Stephan L. Chorover, James L. Kirtley, Jr., Vera Kistiakowski, J. David Litster, James R. Melcher (deceased), Walter E. Morrow, Myron Weiner and two graduate students, Steven A. Farber and Reza A. Ghanbari.

A version of this article appeared in the March 11, 1992 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 36, Number 23).

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