The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 36.0°F | Overcast

Issues suggested for commission

Guest Column/Adrian Nye and Robin Wagner

An MIT commission is being established to study the impact of military funding on MIT's educational and research environment. The commission will include students and faculty members. A broad coalition of student organizations and individuals publicly endorsed the creation of this commission in The Tech ["Students should look into funding," March 19] and at the March 20 faculty meeting.

To follow up this endorsement, we would like to offer suggestions on the issues which the commission should address.

First, we ask that the charge of the commission be flexible and broad in scope. We believe that the commission should be free to examine all relevant questions, even if some questions might fall under the jurisdiction of existent faculty committees. Only by examining a full range of questions will we be able to avoid incomplete and/or misleading conclusions.

Second, we ask that the commission be given sufficient resources to produce meaningful results. Funds should be available to collect existing and new data from sources inside and outside the Institute. Support for a research staff should be allocated, if necessary.

Third, we ask that commission membership be balanced with respect to professional expertise and contact with the defense industry. We think that at least one economist, one political scientist and one philosopher/ethicist should sit on the commission, as well as engineers and scientists from various disciplines. In addition, we ask that undergraduate and graduate student representatives comprise 1/4 to 1/5 of the total commission membership.

Fourth, the commission should address, at least, the following questions:

O+ What portion of the on-campus and Lincoln Laboratory research budgets can be attributed to military-related sources? Specifically, how much military-related money does MIT receive from domestic and international government agencies, defense contractors, and gifts? Which US government agencies fund military research? Candidates besides the Department of Defense should include the Department of Energy, NASA, Defense Intelligence Agency, CIA, National Security Agency, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the National Institutes of Health.

For example, MIT has obtained NSF money for on-campus computer research on cryptology. In a departure from its usual practice, the NSF has required the recipients of the cryptology funds to submit any potentially classifiable findings -- before they are published -- to the NSF to review for possible classification by an appropriate government agency (as a civilian agency, the NSF does not have the authority to classify research).

O+ How many MIT faculty, post-docs, students and other technical staff are engaged in defense-sponsored research on campus and at Lincoln and Draper Laboratories? How many of them do classified research? How many students are involved in military research through the UROP and Co-op programs, research assistantships, and undergraduate and graduate theses? For instance, even though MIT formally divested the Draper Lab in 1973, the Institute continues to maintain strong ties with the Lab.

The MIT 1984-85 Bulletin states, "A number of MIT faculty members maintain a close association with the [Draper] Laboratory, and thesis research opportunities exist which fulfill the residency requirement for an MIT degree. Students are in direct daily association with the professional staff of engineers and scientists of the Laboratory, and thus learn to appreciate the economic and human, as well as the technical, aspects of a system.

Undergraduate and graduate students also may be employed by the Laboratory and may work directly on a project [original emphasis]. These opportunities provide an excellent technical internship which greatly broadens the students' educational experience."

O+ Are student career choices significantly affected by the high visibility of military contractors in the form of heavy advertising and recruitment? Do MIT students feel their prospects for employment are enhanced or limited by increasing job opportunities in the defense sector? We have preliminary evidence that a sizable fraction of MIT students have reservations about working for the defense industry.

Last fall, MIT Student Pugwash conducted a voluntary survey of MIT undergraduates on their attitudes toward the social impacts of science and technology. One question examined moral concerns related to employment.

Students were asked to rank their desire to work for the defense industry on a scale ranging from strong preference to strong aversion. Out of the 782 undergraduates who answered this question, 56 percent expressed aversion to working for the defense industry. In contrast, only 15 percent expressed a preference for doing defense-related work. Twenty nine percent indicated they were indifferent. Broken down further, 43 percent indicated they have a strong to moderate aversion towards working for the defense industry, while seven percent expressed a strong to moderate preference.

We think these results merit further investigation: Although our sample size was relatively large -- 17 percent of undergraduates -- approximately representative with respect to course and sex, there was some selection bias in our survey, in part because it was voluntary. Therefore, we ask that the commission conduct a more extensive survey of attitudes of past and present undergraduate and graduate students. In addition, we request that the commission examine the career paths of alumni with the aid of the Alumni Association.

O+ Do faculty and staff feel their choice of projects is or will be affected by the shifting priorities in the national research budget? The Reagan Administration's proposed 1986 budget calls for a 21 percent increase for military research and development. This includes a 16 percent increase for "basic" military related research. In contrast, other "basic" physical science research would only increase by 3.3 percent, and the life sciences would decrease by 4.9 percent (these figures are corrected by 4.3 percent inflation).

O+ Are there other less obvious affects on the research environment for faculty and staff? For example, how much private consulting do faculty currently do for military contractors, and how has this amount changed over time, and why? Do faculty (and students) engaged in "basic" military research now experience overt or covert pressures to restrict the publication of their findings? To answer these and other related questions, we think that the commission should survey the faculty and research staff.

O+ As tuition bills have skyrocketed and financial aid has been unable to match this rise, have more students turned to military support programs, such as ROTC, to pay for their education?

An examination of these issues is essential for an adequate review of the military influence on MIT. We hope that the students, faculty and administration officials will consider our comments as they help shape the emerging commission. Finally, we hope that students, faculty and staff will think about these issues and express their views on this subject within the MIT community.

(Editor's Note: Robin Wagner is a graduate student representative of the Faculty committee on Educational Policy and an active member of MIT Student Pugwash. Adrian Nye holds an S. B. in mechanical engineering. He wrote his senior thesis on "The Effects of Maintaining Technological Superiority in Weapons.")