“Wiener on Innovation” – Panelist — Ted Postol

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“Wiener on Innovation” – Panelist — Ted Postol

Ted Postol: I’m going to be talking about the influence of military funding on university-based research. The message is very simple. If you’re worried about the influence of military funding on university-based research, you’d better start worrying about a lot of other things as well. The universities are under a lot of pressure, and activities are being strongly funneled, either intentionally or not. I think Norbert Wiener would probably have a lot to say about that.

As I contemplated this subject, I realized that there are enormous differences between the types of research that are funded by the Department of Defense, and incidentally by the Department of Energy as well, that influence the way research is done at a university. The universities can have Department of Defense money for quite basic research. That is published and open to the entire academic community. This area of research can be impacted by rules that try to limit the participation of graduate student researchers due to their countries of origin. This presents a very serious and difficult problems for universities, which are basically structured to be open institutions.

External pressures on university-based research is a big problem. This problem is not unique or a special consequence of military funding. For example, Department of Defense funds may be used to support mathematics research that could be useful for applications in new communication systems, reconnaissance systems, and methods of computation and the like. This particular kind of research would be published in the open literature, and while the availability of funding could influence the researcher’s choice of subject materials for research, it’s not clear that this influence is any more problematic than the influence on research that is created by the special interest’s funding of government agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, or for that matter, large corporations.

As is well known among those who think carefully about the determinants that direct modern engineering and scientific research, it is as much determined by who gets the money and who does not. The elephant in the room is money. As we all know, money is essential to the health and growth of universities. In the case of universities that manage large laboratories for the US, I’m talking about military laboratories, the big question relates to how the government reimburses the universities for their management and oversight efforts. Related to that question is a more fundamental question. Who is in control? Does the dog wag its tail? Or does the tail wag the dog?

The two ways that are currently used for reimbursing universities for their efforts are, what are called, fixed flat fees and variable fees determined by percentage of laboratory revenues. In the question and answer period, if people are interested in these, I can go into much greater detail. Before these methods of reimbursement are discussed, it is important to be clear about which laboratories might properly be considered military. In the case of the United States, the two big classes of laboratories that are properly considered to be military are those that might be funded by either the Department of Energy or the Department of Defense. The two giant university-managed Department of Energy laboratories, Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore, until the last decade or so were heavily focused on the development of new nuclear weapons in addition basic science and energy research. They were doing both.

Currently, these laboratories are most heavily involved in what is now called stockpile stewardship. The science and technology of assessing the performance issues associated with nuclear weapons as they age in an environment where you cannot continue testings. Incidentally, there’s lots of controversy over whether this is necessary or not. I would be happy to talk about that.
By reimbursing the management efforts the university with a flat fee, it would appear on the surface that the potential conflicts of interest are greatly reduced. However, one then runs into the problem of indifference management on the part of the university. If the university gets paid whether or not it does a good job managing the laboratories, then a secondary outcome of having reduced conflicts of interest is indifference to what is actually going on at the laboratories. There is certainly a lot of historical evidence to support the concern that indifference has played a major role in problems that have occurred at Livermore and Los Alamos and then other major laboratories.

The second way to reimburse universities for their management of large military research laboratories is to do it by providing the university with a percent of revenue reimbursement. This scheme looks on the surface to be rather different from the flat fee arrangement. The apparent benefit is that the university appears to have more control over what goes on at the laboratory. As a result, the university is more inclined to meet its obligations as a manager. The benefit of this arrangement is that reimbursing relative to revenues can create incentives to grow the revenues, which in principle might deliver greater service to the country in the form of more and higher quality military research. The downside, however, is that this reimbursement mechanism can also create incentives to expand programs at the laboratory without regard to their quality or excellence. Like a lot of things in the real world, each process on the surface looks like it has special benefits, but in reality each process has significant downsides as well.

In summary, there are at least three seriously problematic areas with military research at universities. The first is what might be called the directed funding and the externality of decisions about what gets funded, and therefore, about where research efforts are made. These mechanisms take important freedoms from university researchers. Since good researchers can be expected to know their fields much better than bureaucrats, this can have significant negative impacts on the direction and quality of research.

Number two, the methods for reimbursing universities for running large laboratories have benefits, but each have very significant downsides. When one looks carefully at these different approaches for funding, it is hard to see why one methodology might be clearly superior to the other. This duality can lead to very significant failures with regard to the goals and objectives of both universities and the laboratories. The failure to manage these extremely complex, and actually quite important, institutions properly not only has financial consequences, but it also has larger consequences for the independence of the university and the security of the nation.

Finally, classified research is antithetical to the purpose of the universities. The purpose of the university is to grow knowledge and to be a repository for that knowledge. Military research forces universities to make unpalatable choices that have the potential to undermine the main purpose of the institutions. I personally believe that universities owe services to society due to the extraordinarily large amount of support they get from society. However, universities cannot pay their debt to society if the service they provide is the prostitute of special interests. Striking this balance is deeply problematic.

In the end, it boils down to having leadership and integrity at our universities. Unfortunately, American society is currently in a phase where leadership, integrity, and accountability is wanting in almost every sector of our society. The financial system is profoundly corrupt and out of control. It is not even too extreme to call it a gigantic criminal enterprise. Government institutions like the Congress are unable to provide even the most minimal leadership for the country. Most giant corporations operate as if they believe they have no obligations to the people who work for them and to the society that supports them, and it is the society that supports these corporations. In many university corporations, that they behave pretty much like these giant corporations. Thus, the biggest threat may well be that our universities, like our nation, lack the kind of leadership and vision that is needed to do what is right for the national interests. I’ll stop here.