[Photo: MIT’s Jerome Wiesner with Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara.]
Chomsky’s claim that ‘MIT itself doesn’t have war work’ echoes MIT’s official position.
This interesting Boston Globe article exposes MIT’s line in the 1980s that its war work was OK because it wasn’t ‘operational weapons’ work. Or as one anti-militarist campaigner says in the piece:
‘MIT seems to think it's OK to work on weapons as long as it doesn't involve the parts that goes bang … MIT is so deeply involved in work relating to weapons systems that they have to resort to some sort of sophistry to justify it.’
MIT Role in Research for Military Questioned; classified work is done at off-campus labs
Robert Levey, Boston Globe Newspaper Aug 7, 1983
As the expanding national military budget continues to push more defense work back onto college campuses, it is rekindling questions about the touchy relationship between basic science and military research.
Among the schools whose policies are being questioned is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which along with Johns Hopkins University accounts for almost half the Pentagon research being conducted by American universities.
The Defense Department now spends almost $800 million a year - up from $577 million two years ago - for both unclassified and secret military research, carried out either on campuses or facilties operated by universities under contract with the government.
In the struggle for new sources of revenue, educational institutions have found a windfall in the government's growing ardor for defense research. But this windfall also challenges each school's institutional conscience regarding what it deems appropriate as research activity.
At the University of Michigan, for instance, the board of regents struggled last month with a proposal to set up a review process for accepting any unclassified government research "a substantial purpose of which is to destroy or permanently incapacitate human beings."
The university already has such a policy covering secret research. By a 7-1 vote, the regents decided not to extend it to unclassified work, arguing it was unnecessary to add a review process to academic work already being done in the open.
MIT, on the other hand, presents the unusual case of an institution that refuses to do any classified research on its Cambridge campus, but accepts close to $200 million a year in government money for military-related research - much of it secret - conducted in Lexington at its Lincoln Laboratories.
Other universities avoid classified military research not so much because it poses a moral conflict as that it raises the issue of academic freedom. Harvard University, for instance, does not accept any secret research projects but emphasizes that the policy is strictly a matter of academic freedom, that it won't permit research to be done under its auspices if the results cannot be published.
Less than 4 percent of Harvard's $109 million in government- sponsored research comes from the Defense Department; the rest is in unclassified projects.
There are other seeming contradictions. Former MIT president Jerome Wiesner says that though he has long fought for slowing down the arms race, national security needs require that military research continue. "And if you're going to do defense research," Wiesner says, "you should do it as well as you can. At MIT we can do it very, very well."
MIT qualifies, along with an imposing list of the nation's most powerful private corporations, as one of the 100 top defense contractors in the country. And when examining the history of MIT's overall posture on defense research, its current status can appear confusing or even contradictory.
More than 10 years ago, in the intense emotional climate of the Vietnam war era, MIT severed its relationship with its Draper Laboratory because of campus concern that it was too intimately involved in the design, testing and production of nuclear missiles.
There was a consensus at MIT that though it should continue to use its research expertise in support of national defense, it was inappropriate for MIT to produce parts for nuclear missiles right on the campus.
As one MIT physicist recalls the issue: "Draper was actually fabricating parts for weapons systems that were being deployed. It was a factory. That's what people found most upsetting."
At the same time, there was a less heated campus protest about the secret defense research that was being conducted at Lincoln Laboratories, which is a leading radar research center wholly operated by MIT on contract with the US Air Force.
MIT resisted those pressures and decided to continue to run Lincoln Laboratories. But the MIT Corporation adopted a policy forbidding all secret research at its Cambridge campus, where its education program is based and undergraduates are taught. And it said it would do no work on "operational weapons systems" at either the Cambridge campus or Lincoln Laboratories.
MIT spokesman Robert Byers confirmed last week that those two policies are still in force and are even monitored by a seven- member standing committee of MIT faculty.
Under the Reagan Administration's large defense budget, the research business at Lincoln Laboratories has mushroomed to unprecedented levels in the past three years. MIT revenues from the government contract for the labs reached $155 million in fiscal 1982 and are headed toward an estimated $196 million in fiscal 1983, Byers said.
The enormous increase in the volume of research for the military, then, raises questions about what Lincoln Laboratories is doing for the money. Since at least one-fourth of the work is highly classified, there is no way to obtain detailed descriptions of the newest research there.
Even if available, it would be illegal to publish the information under various US laws protecting sensitive military information.
But some government documents recently obtained through a lawsuit and a Freedom of Information request initiated by the American Friends Service Committee national office in Philadelphia suggest the scope of some research at Lincoln involves mainstream war work that differs little from the kind being done at the Draper Lab 10 years ago.
This includes participation in Pershing missile tests, helping enhance performance of Precision Locator Strike System weapons and developing growth options for LANTIRN, the highly sophisticated nighttime infrared targeting system for firing Maverick air-to- surface missiles from E16 and A10 aircraft.
Furthermore, an article on nuclear weapons technology in the July 8 issue of the respected magazine "Science" states that as part of the sophisticated search for decoys to trick the Soviet Union into ignoring oncoming US missiles, Lincoln Laboratories scientists have "created a special aerosol, which reflects the earth's shine, thereby creating numerous false light impressions."
In essence, they have invented a product with but a single military use - to fool the enemy when US nuclear warheads are sent in their direction.
MIT officials maintain these kinds of research projects do not constitute "operational weapons work." But critics argue MIT is engaging in misleading semantics.
Thomas Conrad, the Friends Committee researcher for its NARMIC (National Action/Research on the Military Industrial Complex) project, said it had to sue the government after being refused listings of the unclassified contract information assembled by the Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC).
The Defense Department said it could not issue the documents to NARMIC because it included "data relating to manufacturing or using munitions of war." The court forced the department to release the requested material, Conrad said, but as of last Jan. 1, the DTIC contract listings have been returned to the category of classified information and the department does not have to turn them over now.
"MIT seems to think it's OK to work on weapons as long as it doesn't involve the parts that goes bang," Conrad said. "But modern weapons systems are just that . . . they are systems. They involve platforms, launchers, targeting and guidance devices, along with the warheads. If you're involved in any one of them, you're helping a weapon get to its target.
"And it's important to remember that these weapons are basically designed to snuff out lives.
"It stretches credulity for MIT to call this work acceptable, to be doing these things and saying it's all right because we don't do work on operational weapons.
"From looking at these documents, it seems to us that MIT is so deeply involved in work relating to weapons systems that they have to resort to some sort of sophistry to justify it."
Though Byers and others at MIT insist the character of the work at Lincoln Laboratories has not changed over the years, he said "that doesn't mean the work doesn't have military value."
He said the distinction made by MIT is that its researchers will not actually "build, manufacture or supply the government with a weapons system."
If Lincoln Lab scientists go to missile test ranges and work on improving guidance and targeting systems for nuclear weapons, that is regarded as appropriate research and development activity, not operational weapons work. "Now, you may not agree with our definition of operational weapons," Byers said.
Alan Oppenheim, a member of the MIT standing committee assigned to monitor research at Lincoln Laboratories, said some of the disagreement about the nature of MIT's involvement in weapons research could come from the way contracts are written.
The actual contracts between the Air Force and MIT specify, among other things, that Lincoln Laboratories shall conduct a strategic research program that "will embrace efforts related to ballistic missle offense and defense to include the management and operation of a test site and work in penetration technology."
It states that the tactical program at Lincoln "will include developments in surveillance of ground and air targets, strike and weapon guidance, tactical communications and countermeasures."
And though Lincoln isn't involved in regular production of weapons systems, the contract states part of its complex mission is to "produce, or have produced, initial models of Lab-developed equipment suitable for field demonstration and test by appropriate military services or agencies."
But Oppenheim suggested that "these contracts tend to sound more specific than the work really is. As the proposals move through the funding system, people do a lot of crafting to make a round peg fit in a square hole. We all know this goes on."
Oppenheim said it enhances the possibility of getting basic research sponsored if some practical applications that could result from the work are described. For better or worse, he added, "the Defense Department is our Ministry of Science."
Robert Levey, Boston Globe Newspaper Aug 7, 1983