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The MURJ-United Trauma Relief Connection

Matt Craighead

When one thinks about what sorts of articles would be found in an “MIT Undergraduate Research Journal,” one thinks of articles by students about their latest UROP work. You might see cutting-edge research in science and engineering; perhaps some in the social sciences and humanities as well. So when the latest MURJ showed up, I was rather shocked to see it filled with such articles as “On the Refugee Problem in Eritrea” and “Land Mines: A Humanitarian Crisis.”

Let me dispel any doubts about my position by noting that many of the articles are wholly legitimate. In the Science News in Review section, you can find such items as “A Step In the Fight against Cancer”; “Gene Therapy Corrects Sickle-Cell Disease in Mice”; “Converting Heat to Energy without a Generator”; etc. These items are exactly on target.

Likewise, I am not disparaging the work of many of the student contributors who wrote for MURJ. Elizabeth Stephens’ article on “Palladium Coatings of Targets for Inertial Fusion Energy” epitomizes what belongs in this journal. The article describes a scientific problem, describes experiments on a potential solution to the problem, and gives detailed numerical results in several charts.

Yet all is not well. Consider an item in the World Science News in Review section, “Biotech Crop Use Increases Globally.” The article begins, “Amid great controversy concerning their [biotech crops’] safety...” The editors fail to inform the reader that there is little scientific reason to believe that genetically modified crops pose substantial health dangers. Lest you think that I am a tool for corporate interests like Monsanto, don’t take it from me -- take it from Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace, who tells us that “the campaign of fear now being waged against genetic modification is based largely on fantasy and a complete lack of respect for science and logic.”

In addition, the article informs us that “[biotech crops] may cause developing world industries to suffer and could lead to hunger among farmers ... .” In fact, if biotech crops meet their promise, boosting food production and reducing prices, world hunger would likely be greatly reduced. Someone who earns $250 a year would likely be overjoyed to find out that he could feed his family for less.

Let’s skip ahead to Julia de Kadt’s “Land Mines” article. First of all, it is somewhat bizarre that this would appear in MURJ. Aren’t land mines a political topic? How is stating a brief history of the campaign to ban land mines “research?” Does not this article belong in, say, Counterpoint, the opinion pages of The Tech, or a political science or foreign policy publication?

In any case, de Kadt fails to mention the main argument against banning land mines: it is contrary to our national interest. She dismisses without comment the idea that land mines are essential to our military position in Korea, even though -- if not for our troops and (dare I say it) land mines -- the militaristic North would easily overrun the democratic, industrialized South. The issue is very simple. It is irrational for the United States to rule out in advance, in all possible scenarios the use of some weapon, if you start from the premise that our government’s most fundamental purpose is to protect the lives and livelihoods of American citizens from foreign aggression.

This is not the first time we’ve heard about land mines this semester. You may recall the campaign against land mines by the student group United Trauma Relief. It happens that UTR’s founder, Sanjay Basu, is also the founder and top editor of MURJ. UTR’s online “update” reveals that de Kadt is a UTR member and is in fact UTR’s “point person” on land mines. She previously co-authored a column with Basu in The Tech on sweatshops, and also wrote in an earlier MURJ about AIDS drugs -- the focus of another of UTR’s campaigns.

De Kadt is not the only MURJ contributor to hail from Basu’s UTR. Selam Daniel, who writes about Eritrean refugees, is also a UTR member and is UTR’s “point person” on the issue of (surprise, surprise) Eritrean refugees. (Once again, this topic is more appropriate to a foreign policy journal.)

We find also a MURJ article from Shefali Oza on tuberculosis. This is an entirely valid topic for a science journal, but the article is mostly about international organizations and their responses to the disease, rather than about (for example) a new scientific breakthrough in fighting TB. Oza is also a UTR member -- she is the second UTR point person for land mines, and is involved in contacting a Moldovan project on AIDS and tuberculosis.

There are two issues here. First, MURJ needs to decide whether it is really a research journal or a journal on (as the editors state on page two) “humanitarian and environmental crises.” A research journal can have feature articles, but they should be directly related to science and research. For example, Michael Sekora’s feature on “The Big Bang’s Pervasive Plasma” is directly related to new developments in physics. It is difficult to see how land mines are or could be a research topic fit for publication in MURJ.

Second, for the sake of its own reputation, MURJ needs to ensure that it is not a vehicle for campus activism by subterfuge, but a legitimate journal. It may be mere coincidence that no fewer than three of eleven articles in the journal are written by UTR members about mainly political topics, that these topics are same ones they are addressing as members of UTR, and that the founder of MURJ is also the founder of UTR. Likewise, it may not be by design that the news item about biotech crops is almost exclusively negative about this technology. At some point, however, such a remarkable string of coincidences starts to look like a political agenda.

Nowhere in MURJ are the UTR links disclosed. It would be easy to add a small item at the end of each piece saying, e.g., “Julia de Kadt, a member of the class of 2002 in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, is working with the student group United Trauma Relief to ban land mines.” Such disclosure is not only good policy, but is also essential to avoiding a breach of scientific and journalistic ethics.

MURJ should seek the views of both sides on controversial issues, especially for news items. Statements along the lines of “the Bush administration has failed to address this issue” (p. 10) are inappropriate and belong in an opinion piece, not a news item. It might be reasonable to introduce a one-page opinion column about a major timely scientific issue, but elsewhere such comments are irresponsible. MURJ should have sought the opinion of a scientist who supports carbon credits (p. 5-6). And if the editors wish to include articles about “humanitarian crises,” they need to ensure all points of view are presented. An article about AIDS drugs should present (for instance) the view that drug companies have a fundamental right to their intellectual property, rather declaring flat-out that “the global patenting of life-saving drugs should not be permitted at the cost of human lives” (p. 39, Volume 5).

If MURJ continues along its current path, its reputation as an impartial research journal will likely be irrevocably damaged. This would be a shame for the many MIT undergraduates who would like to share their research results with the MIT community; so I urge the MURJ editors to undertake these necessary reforms to preserve MURJ as a viable publication.