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SDI Boycott Violates Academic Freedom

The controversy generated by the Strategic Defense Initiative has quite naturally spilled over to university campuses. SDI-sponsored research at universities has become a vehicle for expression of concern about military research at universities generally, as well as about the merits and dangers of the SDI program itself. People question whether either the university qua university or individual faculty members should accept SDI funding. Despite my own deep concern about the goals of SDI, I would

By | February 23, 1987

The controversy generated by the Strategic Defense Initiative has quite naturally spilled over to university campuses. SDI-sponsored research at universities has become a vehicle for expression of concern about military research at universities generally, as well as about the merits and dangers of the SDI program itself. People question whether either the university qua university or individual faculty members should accept SDI funding.

Despite my own deep concern about the goals of SDI, I would urge extreme caution in restraining university research, and in pressuring colleagues on what research to do and what sponsorship to accept, as a way of conveying political messages.

Even though most people are not pressing—as they might have in the 1960s—for the university itself to take a political position, they are asking their colleagues to do so. This peer pressure, even though informal, affects the intellectual climate adversely. After all, peer review is a significant aspect of the culture of academe; it quite properly influences the professional judgments of researchers. But it is inimical to the fragile academic enterprise when peer review extends to judgments of what cause is just, and collegial pressure is exercised to influence research for reasons other than academic merit.

How each of us judges our own research in the larger scheme of social goals should be an individual matter. Scientists differ in their views about the extent to which they should participate in a national program whose overall justification and goals they disagree with. Some on campus may have strong negative sentiments about accepting sponsorship from a government program when they seriously question its wisdom and motivation. Others feel no need to be defensive about accepting support from almost any legitimate government source for research they believe is inherently useful, as long as it meets university standards of openness.

My first reaction to the effort to encourage faculty members to refuse to work on the SDI program was that it was all to the good. But I have reverted to my long-held belief that the strength of the university as an in-dependent research community, free from political and ideological pressures, should not be risked. When research is politicized, the potential tyranny of colleagues' approval and disapproval of choice raises problems. It is troublesome when individuals seek to impose their political and ethical judgment on what research should accomplish.

We might pause to reflect on the political and ideological causes that could affect particularly controversial research areas such as reproduction, nutrition and genetics. Yet there is hardly any area of research that is not susceptible to political judgments.

Defending the Academic Process

Universities are particularly sensitive to the potential tyranny of government research sponsors—and properly so. Universities must be vigilant in opposing restrictions on how and what is taught, on what is appropriate research, and on publication of research results. It is generally agreed that the university as an institution must eschew politics and ideology in determining research choices. However, the needs and interest of government agencies can create sensitive issues for universities.

Government agencies might prefer to limit participation in research to U.S. citizens, for example, thus violating academic standards of openness. The objectivity of research would be impaired if such government strictures were readily accepted. Yet university research depends upon government sponsorship in large measure. Therefore, difficult issues recur and must be confronted. Vision, enlightenment, and compromise have achieved a reasonable modus vivendi that allows government agencies to accept academic freedom, and that prevents universities from being unduly distorted by research programs that reflect government rather than university priorities.

In addition to being concerned about restrictions on university autonomy and distortion of campus research priorities, many people believe that universities should not accept sponsorship by military and intelligence agencies. Most universities have guidelines that permit research for such sponsors as long as it does not violate the usual standards of openness and appropriateness. But these principles are in fact "modified" in some instances. For example, most leading universities strongly discourage work for the CIA and other intelligence agencies, even if it otherwise meets the universities' criteria.

I fervently hope that political pressure will be brought to bear on what I believe to be misguided government policy regarding SDI. However, I oppose either institutional restraints or organized peer pressure on research choices as a means of expressing political judgment about this program. Political neutrality in the choice and conduct of university research is just too important to risk.

Ruina is professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, Cambridge,
MA 02139, and director of MIT's program in defense and arms control studies.
This article is excerpted from "SDI: Peer Pressure and Politics on Campus," which
appeared in the February-March 1986 issue of Technology Review, pp. 12-13.

Copyright © 1986 MIT. Reprinted by permission.

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