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MIT panel urges off-campus sites for classified research

A faculty committee, mindful of U.S. security needs following the Sept. 11 attacks and of MIT's history of national service, recommended today that MIT provide off-campus facilities to help faculty perform classified public service or research involving the nation's security.

"MIT remains committed to a strong role of public service and, as appropriate, to expanding the scope of that service," the committee said in its report, "In the Public Interest."

The Ad Hoc Committee on Access to and Disclosure of Scientific Information also strongly reiterated MIT's long-standing policy of intellectual openness on the campus. "National security, the health of our nation and the strength of our economy depend heavily on the advancement of science and technology and on the education of future generations. The well-being of our nation will ultimately be damaged if education, science and technology suffer as a result of any practices that indiscriminately discourage or limit the open exchange of ideas," the committee's report said.

"We recommend that no classified research should be carried out on campus; that no student, graduate or undergraduate, should be required to have a security clearance to perform thesis research; and that no thesis research should be carried out in (intellectual) areas requiring access to classified materials."

The committee said the university's dilemma following the events of Sept. 11 is that "restrictions on access to select biological agents, the application of export control provisions to university researchers, and a growing pressure to treat research results as sensitive create a new landscape for faculty, students and MIT as an institution."

Institute Professor Sheila Widnall, who was Secretary of the Air Force in the Clinton administration, headed the committee. The members of the committee were Vincent W.S. Chan, professor of electrical engineering and computer science and aeronautics and astronautics and director of the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems; Institute Professor Jerome I. Friedman, Nobel laureate in physics; Professor of Management Stephen C. Graves, chair of the faculty; and Professor of Political Science Harvey Sapolsky, director of the Security Studies Program.

Provost Robert A. Brown and Graves appointed the panel to examine MIT's policies dealing with restrictions on research, such as those arising from classified or industry-sponsored research.

Provost Brown, commenting on the report, said, "Professor Widnall and her colleagues have done an excellent job considering a complex landscape while focusing on MIT's core values of student education and scholarly exchange. The report will help guide our policies with respect to organization and governance of research for the years ahead."


"The fundamental mission of MIT rests upon four values: unfettered transmission of knowledge through educational activities, creation of new knowledge through research and other scholarly activities, service to the nation and service to humanity," the committee stated. "Openness enables MIT to attract, educate and benefit from the best students, faculty and staff from around the world. This is especially important, as competence in science and technology has grown throughout the world so that access to research and knowledge outside the United States is critical to our own progress.

"No foreign national granted a visa by the U.S. government should be denied access to courses, research or publications generally available on campus."

The committee said that allowing classified research on campus would require a dual research and management system. It would restrict faculty interaction and student involvement and "would inevitably create two separate classes of individuals on campus," the panel said. "In the end, we believe that the restrictions on the free flow of research results, as well as control of individual access, would negatively impact national security by hampering the progress of science in important areas of human health, economic growth, and in all of the other areas that science has brought benefits to our nation.

"We are moved by the obligation of public service to the nation. However, we believe that this is best met through an open and shared research environment on campus coupled with the operation of special facilities for classified research and the expansion of opportunities for faculty to engage in public service in significant ways."


The committee outlined MIT's history of public service in national defense, including the development of radar during World War II. During the Cold War, MIT developed the Distant Early Warning System and ballistic missile defenses at Lincoln Laboratory, a federally funded laboratory the Institute operates for the U.S. government. In the past decade, Lincoln Laboratory has developed sophisticated military communications systems, as well as nonclassified systems such as weather radar systems and an air traffic collision-avoidance system.

The committee anticipates that research currently being carried out on campus may have follow-on activities that require classification. The panel proposed that MIT provide nearby facilities off campus where faculty can work or advise on classified national security matters, and that MIT make arrangements for security clearances for faculty.

"For many faculty members, these clearances are an important enabler of their public service ... Since obtaining a clearance can take up to 18 months, responding promptly to public service opportunities is not possible without provision for the continuity of individual security clearances," the committee said.

"The national security implications of biological sciences are growing. It is not too hard to imagine a future Lincoln Laboratory-like entity conducting classified biologically related research in the Boston area."

The panel recommended that Lincoln Laboratory increase the involvement of MIT faculty in its research program and provide facilities for faculty to carry out classified research in compatible areas. Members proposed using the facilities of the independent Charles Stark Draper Laboratory in Cambridge for research and access to classified material. The heads of both laboratories were consulted in the process, according to acknowledgements in the report.

"We do not recommend that MIT provide facilities for storage and access of classified materials on the MIT campus," the committee added.


In the case of extraordinary national events, such as "the need for forensic analysis of biological materials," the committee recommended that MIT allow its unique campus facilities and expertise to be used for a short-term response to national emergencies.

Such an exception would require the permission of the provost, in consultation with a new standing faculty committee the report recommended which would monitor evolving federal legislation, any exception to MIT policy, and any issue of openness of research that might come to its attention concerning research sponsored by government or industry.

The panel supported the current MIT policy for on-campus research of not accepting prior review for possible disclosure of "sensitive information." The committee also expressed the view that restrictions on handling select agents may cause MIT to withdraw from affected areas of research.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 12, 2002.

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