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The Cambridge Project: An Interview

By Jeff Magalif

One of the most controversial issues around Harvard this fall has been the Cambridge Project. The Project, which uses computers here and at M.I.T. for social and behavioral science research, was funded with $15 million by the Defense Department for the current fiscal year, and Defense has indicated that it will give it an additional $61 million over the next four years.

Some Harvard professors already are doing individual research with Cambridge Project grants. But Harvard has not yet decided whether to join M.I.T. on the policy board of the Project: the Faculty will debate the issue on January 6.

Edwin B. Newman, professor of Psychology and chairman of the Harvard participants in the Cambridge Project, answered questions about the Project in an interview last week.

What would be the advantage to Harvard of joining the Cambridge Project institutionally, rather than on an individual basis?

If we and M.I.T. are going to be in the Project together, we must do so on an equal basis. And there are a certain number of sticky problems connected with the Project-like access to, and privacy of, data-and Harvard should take equal responsibility for solving them.

Have some of the criticisms of the Cambridge Project been based on misconceptions or misinformation?

Certainly on misconceptions-and on a lack of information.

For example, we have no intention of extending to the Defense Department any privileged access to data; there will be no "hot line" to the Pentagon. The creation of a data bank is not one of our objectives, although we can't develop methods without having data on which to try them.

We have no obligation to carry out research in any particular substantive area; the choice of topics will depend entirely upon the research interests of Faculty members. And no part of the Cambridge Project work will be classified.

You said that Faculty researchers will be solely responsible for the work they do under the Cambridge Project. But wouldn't the Defense Department be more likely to grant money to the Project in the future if it felt that the Project research had been beneficial to its own interests?

Yes-that's been a problem we face with every funding agency: there is always the question of persuading the funder that you are doing something worthwhile for him. To say that we aren't influenced by the people using our research would be foolish, but this is a fair bargain between two parties: very often, contact with practical applications is quite fruitful for academics.

Section 203 of the recently enacted Military Procurement Bill forbids the Defense Department, beginning next year, to fund any research not having "a direct and apparent relationship to a specific military function." Does the Cambridge Project in fact have such a relationship?

Yes-but the social science research which the Defense Department has funded this decade has not been uniquely related to its own needs. The Defense Department is concerned with such matters as training, assignment, organization, assessment of personnel, incentives, and skill development- just like any large organization. We're living in a rather closely interrelated world with the Defense Department, and what we know of their plans lies almost entirely in these areas.

But is there anything to prevent the Defense Department from using the Cambridge Project to serve other purposes than the ones you mentioned?

There is nothing to prevent anybody from using the Project data for any purpose.

What effect do you think projects like the Cambridge Project have on Defense Department decision-making?

They increase the likelihood that there will be an adequate and available body of knowledge which can be brought to bear upon policy decisions. There is a real prospect that by understanding processes better and by being able to catalogue data and have it on tap, we can make progress toward peace in the next few years that we've never made before.

From what other agencies has the Cambridge Project sought funding, and what has been the response of these agencies?

We have asked the NSF [National Science Foundation], the NIH [National Institute of Health], and two private foundations for money. They all told us that they didn't have funds of the order of magnitude that we needed.

Since Defense Department funding of the Cambridge Project is such a controversial issue, why can't the Cambridge Project be delayed until other sources of funding are found?

The way in which computer technology is developing puts very serious constraints on us: its development in the next few years may have a very profound effect for a rather long future. Only the very active participation of social scientists right now will succeed in directing the development of computer technology in ways advantageous to us.

Doesn't a university's acceptance of money from a political agency make it less likely to be independent and critical of that agency?

This has been a source of anxiety for many years, but evidence indicates that if outside funding is a factor in the development of the university, it's relatively minor factor.

I don't feel that university involvement with the Defense Department is very dangerous. The Defense Department is an integral part of American life, and I don't think that universities should feel threatened by it.

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