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MIT Can...t Access Its Own Research

The only believable investigations are independent investigations. Therefore, the only credible result of the Department of Defense’s in-house investigation of allegations of fraudulent research at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratories will be the finding that the allegations are true. In question is the validity of a now-classified report approved by a team including two Lincoln Lab researchers in 1998 that certified a system used to test missile-defense technology. It will be impossible for MIT’s advisor to the investigation to verify the rigorousness of any finding because the DoD’s restrictions will prevent him from seeing either the data in question or the questions themselves.

The failure of President Susan Hockfield and President Emeritus Charles M. Vest to secure a truly independent investigation means that in almost any scenario, the black mark of these allegations on MIT’s reputation cannot be erased. The situation leaves MIT with an unsatisfactory set of choices on how to respond: the Institute can choose to cease research it cannot verify and then risk the political fallout from the DoD, hope that the current opposition to transparency and accountability in the federal government is a passing phase, or ignore the problem and hope that everyone forgets about it, at least until someone makes a new allegation of fraud.

Ironically, the actual research under scrutiny is in itself not that important now; instead, it has opened a window into the obstacles MIT faces when it seeks to investigate the integrity of its researchers who are doing classified research. The research, done by the former military contractor TRW Inc., now part of Northrop Grumman, consists of sensors and a computer program designed to distinguish between missiles and decoys, such as weather balloons. A senior engineer at TRW claimed in 1996 that the company had exaggerated its success, setting off a series of investigations — finding both for and against TRW — including the one led by MIT’s Lincoln Lab exonerating TRW. MIT’s integrity came into question when MIT Professor Theodore A. Postol ’67, who has successfully uncovered missile-defense fraud in the past, publicly claimed that based on his own analysis, the Lincoln Lab report was fraudulent. The government ultimately chose not to use TRW’s technology, and although Postol claims other systems in use are similar to TRW’s, the issue lives on today because MIT said it would investigate his claims of fraud. MIT’s investigation hit a brick wall when the DoD declined the Institute’s investigators access to necessary documents, which led to the recent compromise of the DoD carrying out its own investigation with an MIT advisor.

As it stands, MIT’s failure to carry out its own investigation damages the credibility of all research at the Institute, because it weakens MIT’s ability to publicly certify the quality of its research. While the issue has little direct impact on undergraduate or graduate education, every student at MIT has a stake in the ability of the Institute to have an authoritative process for investigating claims of falsified research. Although Associate Provost Claude R. Canizares is leading a lessons-learned committee, there is a bigger problem about running classified research programs when no one in the Institute can be guaranteed access to review the results of the research. The government’s recent antipathy to transparency is probably part of the problem, but it is dangerous to wait and hope things change, given that there is no guarantee that the tsunami of classification will recede anytime soon. No matter what the outcome of the current investigation, MIT needs guaranteed access to its classified research projects, or it will watch its reputation for integrity decline with each debacle.