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Panel debates conversion to non-Defense research funding

STANFORD -- In the post-Cold War era, universities and private industry should shift their priorities to the nation's greater needs, such as energy and sustainable agriculture, Michael Closson of the Center for Economic Conversion told a recent forum on military-sponsored research at Stanford.

Defense Department funding is already a shrinking proportion of Stanford's government research support, Dean of Research Robert L. Byer said. Because of the university's 22-year-old "no secrecy" policy, most military-linked funding is for basic research that may well have non-military applications, he said.

Byer and Closson spoke , May 28 at a public discussion sponsored by a SWOPSI (Student Workshops on Political and Social Issues) class organized by Stanford grads Greg Cumberford ('91) and Karen Jacobson ('89). They were joined by computer science Prof. John McCarthy; Lee Halterman, counsel to Rep. Ron Dellums (D-Calif.); and Barbara Simons, co-author of a 1989 study on government support of computer science research.

The issue of military funding has inflamed passions and protests at the university over the years, but the forum attracted an audience of less than two dozen. Cumberford said the students in the "Military Funding at Stanford" workshop had decided there was a need for public discussion because of changing global politics and the current shakeup in government support for Stanford research.

"Now is the time to be re-assessing the roles that universities have in meeting national needs," he said.

Stanford depends on the federal government for 85 percent of its research funding -- a total of $260 million in 1990 -- but 46 percent of that support comes from the Department of Health and Human Services for medical research, Byer said.

The Department of Defense only accounts for 16 percent of federal grants to the university -- $40 million a year -- according to figures from Byer's office. The Department of Energy and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which sponsor some military- related research, add another 26 percent. Contracts and grants to Stanford from those three agencies amounted to $112 million in 1990. In addition, the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center received $138 million from the Department of Energy.

Simons' study shows that each year academic institutions perform $400 million to $500 million of the Defense Department's basic research and more than $200 million of applied research. Most defense research is conducted in such national laboratories as the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.

Closson's Mountain View-based organization seeks practical alternatives to a military-oriented economy. He said decisions about what research a scientist will pursue are not strictly a matter of free choice. Any source of funding creates a dependency for faculty and for students, who tend to go on to jobs in related industries.

Through its research funding and weapons purchases, the U.S. military has become "the de facto industrial policymaker for our country," Closson said.

He noted that if the nation had a "needs based" technology agenda, more basic research could be funded that had industrial or social - - but not necessarily military -- potential.

"Research priorities are set to some extent by which projects are funded," Simons agreed. A computer scientist once mentioned to her that his work in robotics could just as well be used for a smart wheelchair as for a military use.

"But no one is funding a smart wheelchair," she said.

McCarthy was not convinced that the university should be setting research agendas "responsive to civilian and environmental needs," as suggested by the forum's organizers. He said this could lead to "lawyer science," with non-scientists deciding what science should be done. Stanford policy -- reaffirmed by the faculty after a 1984 debate over testing of nuclear detectors -- is that researchers choose their own projects and find their own funding sources.

A pioneer in artificial intelligence, McCarthy credited military funders like the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA) with supporting the startup of his field. There would have been little money for computer science in post-World War II years without DARPA, he said.

"If we newcomers had to depend on the science establishment and we'd said to the physicists, 'Move over and give me some funds,' they would have said, 'Wait your turn.' "

Byer said that historically, the Defense Department has been a strong supporter of long-term projects that do not show a result for many years.

"DOD has been one of the federal government's best agencies for supporting basic research," he said. "It's a small fraction of our research now but it has had a big impact on our lives."

Byer's own research in laser optics has been partially supported by defense funding.

Halterman's boss, Dellums, is chair of the Research and Development Subcommitee of the House Armed Services Committee. He said the congressman has been trying to convince the committee to commit more funds to basic research on such things as semiconductors and less to "whiz-bang" weapons.

He urged members of the university to speak out in support of basic research and non-military alternatives. "There's a citizenship responsibility to the academy," he said. "Chime in and tell people what are the good research alternatives. Legislators will listen to the academy."

Byer reminded the forum that Stanford faculty from several disciplines recently formed a teaching and research program in global environmental studies. In response to an audience question about who will fund this program, he replied, "Never underestimate the ability of Stanford faculty members to find resources."



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