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School should not act politically on research

Guest Column/Paul E. Gray




The issue of research funded by the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) is a matter of considerable discussion and debate within the research universities in the United States. Indeed, the national debate now under way on the SDI issue should be invigorated and illuminated by discussion and reflection by discussion within the universities.

Some faculty are opposed to the program on the grounds of technical feasibility or probable strategic consequences, and are choosing not to accept funding from that source. As individuals, they have every right to make that choice. Having said that, I must also say that it would be wrong for a university -- as an institution -- to proscribe certain research sponsors on grounds which are essentially political in nature if the research is proposed by a member of the faculty and if it is in accord with generally accepted university policies and practices. There should be no political tests for research.

Obviously there are situations in which it is appropriate for a university to speak with an institutional voice on political issues. The test is whether the issue at hand has a clear, unambiguous, and direct connection to the essential activities of the university. Every time a university moves beyond this boundry -- as I believe it would if it were to endorse institutionally either side of the SDI debate -- it invites political treatment of its own interests and disenfranchises those within the institution whose views are different.

The dual missions of the research university are education and research, both conducted in an environment which encourages the free exchange of ideas and opinions. Our continued effectiveness as educational institutions, as focal points for research and as places in which the views of all members of the community are afforded respect and credibility, depends on our holding fast to the principles of open expression, academic freedom, and institutional neutrality.

I would add that aside from differing views on the wisdom of this particular program, there are a number of concerns which can arive in any university research that is sponsored by mission-oriented organizations or agencies. These concerns have to do with continuity of funding over a reasonable period, possible differences in time scales expected by sponsor and researcher, and the fact that campus research efforts have the greatest payoff when they are directed to fundamental questions. In addition, because of prohibitions on classified work on most campuses, there is concern that SDI-funded research activities may run the risk of becoming classified after work has begun.

Many of the benefits to society derived from research universities in the United States have arisen from the opporunity for faculty to address a wide variety of fundamental questions in science and technology. There are fears that the government's enthusiasm for the SDI program may lead to a displacement of funding now supporting other important areas of research. Similarly, the ready availability of funds for this focused program may draw talented students and faculty away from other promising lines of inquiry. It is essential that the government's pattern of research support remain balanced in order to maintain our universities' remarkable record of contributions.

These matters have been successfully addressed by program sponsors and universities in many areas of research over the past few decades, and they deserve serious attention in the case of SDI research as well.

Editor's note: President Gray's column is reprinted by permission from The MIT Report of December 1985, published by the MIT Industrial Liaison Program.