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MIT Rejects $400K in NSA Funds Over Foreign Students Restriction

By Ricarose Roque


MIT refused $404,000 in government funding from the National Security Agency last fall when the agency, in return for the money, sought to control which foreign students participated in the funded project.

The NSA had offered to fund further research into advanced computer architecture led by Thomas F. Knight Jr., a senior research scientist in the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

However, negotiations over the contract between NSA and the AI Lab were cut short when the agency insisted on including a clause giving the NSA the right to approve which international students worked on the project. Both sides were adamant, as MIT refused to go against their long-standing policy of “open” research, and as a result, the funding was dropped by MIT.

Knight supports decision

Knight was not included in the decision-making process, as it is the responsibility of the government funding agent and the Office of Sponsored Projects at MIT, in conjunction with the Office of the Provost, to handle contractual details. However, Knight said he supported MIT’s decision. “I would have done the same thing,” Knight said.

“The Provost contacted the AI Lab to say that MIT was going to say ‘no’ to the money,” said Professor Rodney A. Brooks, director of the AI Lab. “I agreed with him. It was the right decision.”

Currently, Knight has not found any alternate sources of funding for his project, but he said he is “quite hopeful” for locating sponsors in the future.

MIT maintains open research

MIT’s move for the sake of maintaining its policy of open research exemplifies the growing security concern over the openness of science with findings that can both benefit and threaten the well-being of the nation.

“The NSA wanted us to submit a list of the foreign nationals working on the project,” said Assistant Director of the Office of Sponsored Projects Paul Powell. “However, we can’t let them restrict the people who work on the project. This particular agency has had this policy all along, and as a result we do very little research with the NSA, almost nothing.”

MIT has long held this policy of not allowing sponsors to dictate which foreign faculty or students may work on a project.

In order to reaffirm these existing and long-standing policies, especially in the midst of growing concern for national security, MIT formed a faculty committee that produced a report last June entitled “In the Public Interest.” The report declared MIT’s policies on the access to and disclosure of scientific information.

In this document, the committee, based on the Institute’s fundamental principals of open dissemination and creation of knowledge as well as its responsibility to the nation and humanity, proposed its findings and recommendations on handling the changing conditions of the post-Sept. 11 U.S. One of these recommendations proposed to have classified research remain in off-campus sites such as Lincoln Laboratories.