Sept. 11 Research Limits Draw Fire

Harvard, MIT panelists decry federal rules

MIT’s president, a Harvard dean and a former military leader jointly criticized government restrictions on academic research tightened in the wake of Sept. 11 at a panel called “The State v. The Academy” held at the ARCO Forum Friday evening.

The three panelists—MIT President Charles M. Vest, Harvard School of Public Health Dean Barry R. Bloom and former Secretary of the Air Force Sheila E. Widnall—said they fear that new regulations on research projects and scholarly publications will stymie important progress across the scientific community.

Academic research vital to the safety and development of the nation can only take place in a culture of free intellectual exchange, they maintained.

“What a university like Harvard or a university like MIT does is fundamentally in the public interest,” said Widnall, who after leaving the Air Force became institute professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. “The essence of the scientific method is openness.”

MIT is taking a leadership role in identifying and publicly confronting broad concerns about government interference with the academy.

Widnall chaired MIT’s Ad Hoc Faculty Committee on Access to and Disclosure of Scientific Information last year, which issued a report examining the relationship between government restrictions and open research—the only report of its sort in the nation, to her knowledge.

And Vest said “the balance between security and openness in research and education” was the subject for his annual report last year.

At Friday night’s panel, Vest spoke on a variety of issues that have arisen between national security priorities and the responsibilities of a research university, ranging from foreign students’ recent problems securing visas to government restrictions on certain research projects.

Vest, who formerly served as chair of the Association of American Universities and is presently on the U.S. President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology, emphasized the value of homeland security.

But he said he doubts that regulation of academic research will quash terrorist threats.

He presented research restrictions as one facet of recent efforts to monitor and control possible foreign treachery within the nation’s universities.

MIT has not only begun to feel the brunt of governmental efforts to monitor certain projects, he said. It has also worked extensively over the past year to manage visa delays and new, more stringent registration requirements that foreign students across the nation have faced.

“I believe that restriction is rarely advisable, and certainly rarely feasible, in this environment,” Vest said. “Restrictions on our teaching and where our students come from are unlikely to counter [national security] concerns.”

Bloom, an expert in infectious diseases, said that the sophistication and innovation of research published in prestigious academic journals would make it virtually valueless to terrorists, who value “elegant simplicity” and favor materials easily attained.

Restriction of biological research and publication, he said, would serve no security benefits.

“It’s creating ignorance among the greatest universities and the brightest students,” he said. “We have to create a culture of science where no one wants to misuse it.”