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MIT’s Commitment to Open Research

In an age when principles are too often sold to the highest bidder, it is reassuring and laudable that MIT has stood firm in its commitment to open and unrestricted research. In a widely publicized report released last June, entitled “In the Public Interest,” a very well-respected MIT faculty committee recommended that all on-campus research remain unclassified and unrestricted for any student or faculty member. Demonstrating its adherence to this principle, MIT has refused a $404,000 advanced computer architecture grant offered to the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory by the National Security Agency last fall, as the funding agreement included a clause that allowed the NSA to restrict the participation of international students on the project. The Tech applauds MIT for its demonstrated and prudent commitment to open research.

Ever since its inception, but increasingly during the past decades, MIT has developed intimate relationship with governmental and industrial entities, which provided all but four percent of total research funds in 2001, with the Department of Defense and Department of Energy together providing more than $144 million. This relationship not only maintains MIT’s financial solvency, but more importantly it serves as a greatly powerful impetus to great technological achievements, which, like the development of radar during World War II, have immense benefits to both national security and to the human community.

Given the current political climate where national security issues are of paramount political concern, however, defense-related funding is increasingly attached to restrictions and classified material. Scientific and academic progress depend vitally on the unconstrained exchange of ideas and information, and the restriction of access to research would not only harm the international students and faculty would be excluded from the research, but would fray the fabric of science and thus ultimately damage the well-being of the nation.

Currently, as strongly recommended by the “In the Public Interest” report, MIT prudently balances the need to allow unfettered access to research and knowledge with the need to undertake sensitive research by directing restricted work to Lincoln and Draper Laboratories, where members of the MIT community can take part in necessary and ground-breaking classified research without hindering the openness of on-campus research. MIT should continue and expand this arrangement, without compromising its commitment to the requirements of university research.

As the foremost academic research institution for the government, MIT must take a strong leadership role in directing the nature of university research. With the writing and publication of the “In the Public Interest” report, and with the testimony of Professor Sheila E. Widnall ’60 to Congress last summer about the need to preserve open research, MIT has already actively championed its values and must continue to do so. MIT should also encourage other research universities to adopt a similar policy, as it is imperative for there to be a unified response by the greater higher education community, to ensure that scientific progress is not compromised.

Keith J. Winstein has recused himself from this editorial.