13 June 2002



MIT panel rejects limits on classified research

By Mary Leonard, Boston Globe Staff, 6/13/2002

WASHINGTON - The Massachusetts Institute of Technology yesterday became the first leading research university to recommend post-Sept. 11 policies on handling classified research, and the first to challenge new federal laws and initiatives designed to limit access, disclosure, and dissemination of federally funded basic research during the war on terrorism.

A report written by a blue-ribbon faculty committee said there should be no change in MIT's longstanding ban on on-campus classified research, and warned the institution to resist growing pressure from government to restrict the publishing of contracted research and the hiring of foreign scientists. The panel cited ''a new landscape'' of national security anxieties.

''Restrictions on access to select biological agents, the application of export-control provisions to university researchers, and growing pressure to treat research results as sensitive create a new landscape for faculty, students, and MIT as an institution,'' said the report, which called on the university to adopt policies to protect academic freedom and an open educational environment.

Since Sept. 11, the report said, government contractors increasingly have been labeling results of unclassified research as sensitive and requesting a national-security review before publication. Such pre-publication reviews on non-secret science run counter to the policies of research institutions, and MIT should not agree to such requests, the faculty committee said.

''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,'' said the report.

The five-member faculty committee was formed in February to respond to what many scientists and university officials say has become the most serious threat to academic freedom and the flow of information since the Cold War.

Faced with fierce opposition from universities and professional science societies, the Defense Department last month withdrew a draft proposal that would have made it a crime for scientists to publish or discuss certain basic research without prior Pentagon approval. Dr. John Hopps, deputy director of defense research and engineering at the Pentagon, would not comment on the substance of the MIT report, but said he would make it part of the department's review of rules to protect sensitive technologies from terrorists.

The Pentagon is not the only federal institution reexamining its rules on basic research. Since Sept. 11, Congress has passed two antiterrorism measures that restrict which laboratories and researchers can handle biological agents; one was the bioterrorism bill President Bush signed yesterday. The MIT report warned that because the administration can expand the restricted list and tighten the regulations at any time, the university ''may rightfully decide that on-campus research'' in some areas cannot be continued.

In April, the Department of Agriculture said it would no longer obtain visas for foreign scientists and students to work in its research laboratories.

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice has indicated that the administration would review existing export-control laws, which now largely exempt scientists from obtaining a license to share their research. A March memorandum from White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card instructed all federal agencies and departments to review their publications and Web sites and reclassify public information as secret, if necessary.

MIT and many other research universities have policies that largely prohibit classified, applied research requiring security clearances and controlled access to facilities on their main campuses. Many universities say they would refuse federal contracts for basic research if the government required that scientists obtain permission to publish their results or limit scholarly contacts.

''The landscape is changing very rapidly, it's somewhat confusing, and all sorts of questions are being asked about regulations on basic research,'' said former Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall, an MIT aeronautics professor who chaired the committee. Widnall said the report was expected to be used as a framework by other universities trying to balance heightened security concerns against traditions of openness in teaching and scholarship.

The committee said MIT could meet its public-service obligation and any national-security needs by doing more classified research at Lincoln Laboratory, the Department of Defense facility in Lexington that MIT manages. MIT also could consider opening a center for classified biological-science research in the Boston area, the faculty committee said.

But the report said that at MIT, which received $639.5 million in government research contracts in fiscal year 2001, there should be no ambiguity about banning classified research on its Cambridge campus. No students should be required to have security clearances to do thesis research, and no classified documents should be stored on campus, said the report, which also cited the risk of making foreign students and faculty a ''separate class'' of individuals on campus.

''Openness enables MIT to attract, educate, and benefit from the best students, faculty, and staff from around the world,'' the report said. ''No foreign national granted a visa by the US government should be denied access to courses, research, or publications generally available on campus.''

Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, called the MIT report ''an important first step'' and a guide to other universities in identifying policies to protect faculty and students in a security-conscious environment.

''If we don't set our own rules and standards on how researchers operate, others may come in and do it for us,'' Alberts said.

Mary Leonard can be reached at