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Classified Research To Stay Off Campus

By Jennifer Krishnan


A faculty committee recently recommended that all classified research conducted by members of the MIT community be carried out off campus.

“We recommend that no classified research should be carried out on campus; that no student, graduate or undergraduate, should be required to have a security clearance to perform thesis research; and that no thesis research should be carried out in areas requiring access to classified materials,” the committee, chaired by Institute Professor Sheila E. Widnall ’60, wrote.

This is an affirmation of MIT’s standing policy, said committee member and Institute Professor Jerome I. Friedman. Currently, no classified research is conducted on campus, no degree depends on classified research, and “all theses can be made public,” Friedman said. The committee concluded that this policy was reasonable, he said.

The report also recommended that the faculty establish a standing committee “to monitor restrictions on access to and disclosure of scientific information.”

Issues arise in Sept. 11 aftermath

The committee was appointed by Provost Robert A. Brown in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 and the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, Friedman said. The USA PATRIOT Act “raised some important issues” that the committee had to consider, he said.

“Restrictions on access to select biological agents, the application of export control provisions to university researchers, and a growing pressure to treat research results as sensitive create a new landscape for faculty, students, and MIT as an institution,” according to the report, entitled “In the Public Interest.”

“The Provost was really looking into the future” when he called for the formation of this committee, Friedman said.

Report establishes values for MIT

“The fundamental mission of MIT rests upon four values: unfettered transmission of knowledge through educational activities, creation of new knowledge through research and other scholarly activities, service to the nation, and service to humanity,” the authors of the report wrote.

“If we compromised [education and openness], we would be doing a disservice” to the community,” Friedman said. “Educating the future of the nation” is itself a service to the nation, he said.

The report calls for MIT to continue to provide access for faculty to off-campus facilities for classified research, such as the Lincoln Laboratory, which is managed by the Institute.

Roger W. Sudbury SM ’63, Assistant to the Director of the Lincoln Laboratory, said the number of faculty conducting research at the facility was small, “in the tens.”

Sudbury said that while several students are involved with research at the Lincoln Lab, “we are very careful to make sure” that none of the thesis work is classified.

MIT also has ties to several other facilities where classified research can be carried out, including the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory in Cambridge.

The report also hinted at the possible establishment of a new facility for biological research.

“It is not too hard to imagine a future Lincoln Laboratory-like entity conducting classified biologically related research in the Boston area,” the panel wrote.

The committee also took up the subject of “sensitive” information -- “Because there is no consistent understanding or definition of what would constitute ‘sensitive’ information, MIT should continue its policy of not agreeing to any sponsor’s contractual request that research results ... be reviewed for the inadvertent disclosure of ‘sensitive’ information.” Additionally, MIT should “not restrict any students from access to any course, on-campus seminar, or other similar forum.”

The committee included Widnall, Friedman, Director of the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems Vincent W.S. Chan ’71, Chair of the Faculty Stephen C. Graves, and Director of the Security Studies Program Harvey M. Sapolsky.