MIT Stands Up to Pentagon as Universities Fight Secrecy Rules

June 15 (Bloomberg) -- When the U.S. Army hired the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last year to research a portable system for detecting chemical weapons, the Pentagon wanted the work kept secret.

MIT refused, saying the Army's proposed restrictions on publication of the research would ultimately hurt national security, not promote it. MIT won -- the Army withdrew its secrecy demand. Yet MIT and other U.S. universities still find secrecy clauses among the $30 billion in federal research contracts offered each year.

Education groups and companies say the restrictions pit academic freedom, and what they see as a vital need for open communication, against what the government says are the needs of national security. Some universities accept the government rules, because they don't have MIT's clout or can't turn down a lucrative job.

"The only true national security is for us to be able to run faster and better,'' said Robert Hardy, director for contracts and intellectual property management at the Council on Governmental Relations, a university lobbying group based in New York.

Hardy is among a group of university and corporate leaders who say the Pentagon and other government agencies should let scientists share their work with each other. They also oppose contract language excluding foreigners from projects, which is another common clause sought by government agencies.

"We're either going to be the magnet for the best and brightest from around the world, or we're going to fall into a second or third tier'' of countries economically, says Craig Barrett, chairman of Santa Clara, California-based Intel Corp., who opposes such restrictions.

Willing to Negotiate
For the five-year, $6.9 million Army grant led by MIT, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a group of universities is studying the properties of various chemical agents. They consider it "fundamental research'' that should be shared with other scientists and therefore exempt from publication restrictions. Raytheon Co. will help make the actual detection equipment used by soldiers.

The Defense Department is sympathetic to the universities' concerns and has been willing to negotiate disputes over contract language, said James Short, the Pentagon's director of defense laboratory management. In some cases, the Pentagon must insist on the limits, Short said.

Protests over its restrictions may be increasing as cash- strapped colleges begin bidding for the types of contracts typically handled by private industry, he said. "Poorer universities, you know, they need the money,'' Short said in an interview.

Groups Challenge Policy
An Army spokesman, Dave Foster, said he had no information on whether other universities may have bid on the contract received by MIT.

The Council on Governmental Relations has been challenging the secrecy policy along with the Association of American Universities, a Washington-based group that represents MIT and other U.S. research universities.

The groups studied records at 20 member schools during a six-month period in 2003 and found 138 instances of restrictions either against publication or the use of foreign students in a sample of 180 proposed government contracts.

"It seems like it's just as bad, if not worse,'' since that report, said Tobin Smith, senior federal relations officer at the Association of American Universities.

Research Quality Affected

By insisting upon terms unacceptable to top universities such as MIT, the Pentagon may be hurting U.S. national security by settling for second-rate research, Hardy said. "The more that we can get the brightest minds and the brightest people involved in our research, the better off we are,'' he said.

MIT's relationship with the military dates back to World War II, when its scientists helped the Pentagon build better radar systems for its ships and warplanes. MIT scaled back such classified work after campus protests in the 1960s, accepting some secret projects while fighting restrictions on others.

"It's not unreasonable for them to ask us, without a doubt,'' Michael Corcoran, manager of contracts and grants at MIT, said of the proposed restrictions. "But it goes against the policies of most of the universities in the country.''

MIT's prominence among U.S. universities helps those of lesser renown resist the Pentagon, said electrical engineering professor Bruce Gnade of the University of Texas at Dallas, a partner with MIT on the Army project.

MIT Has Clout

"MIT is kind of putting a stake in the ground and saying, `We won't sign''' such contracts, Gnade said. "MIT is powerful enough'' to force changes, he said.

It's a tougher call for a school like the University of Cincinnati, identified in the 2003 report as a leading recipient of contracts with restrictive clauses, said Deborah Galloway, the university's executive director of sponsored research services.

When they review proposed contracts, Cincinnati administrators carefully question faculty to be sure that the clauses are necessary and won't harm their educational mission, Galloway said. "It's a difficult issue, to be quite honest with you,'' she said.

The Bush administration recognizes the dilemma faced by both universities and the federal agencies, said John Marburger, director of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy.

"The contracting officers tend to have a lot of discretion about how it's defined,'' Marburger said in an interview, referring to the government officials who write the contracts. "And this is a situation that isn't going to be solved by having an edict, because each different contract is different.''

Compromises Required

In some cases, he said, overly restrictive policies could be self-correcting. "I've advised universities like MIT that have a serious problem, or object to the restrictive language, basically not to do that work,'' Marburger said. "And if it turns out that the Department of Defense or whoever is seeking that type of work, if they can't get it done, then they're going to have to change their contracting practices.''

Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore is "perfectly comfortable'' accepting classified work for non-student researchers, university President William Brody said. Graduate students can't participate because their work must be subject to "public scientific scrutiny, and that's what we do through publication,'' Brody said.

MIT and Johns Hopkins solved the problem of student work by establishing off-campus laboratories for secret projects.

Universities with less money or experience are "running into a culture shock'' as they encounter Pentagon policies, Short said. "They're discovering that the Department of Defense is, believe it or not, responsible for national defense.''