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University News

As ROTC scrutinized, military funding ignored

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, April 4, 2011

Though the possible reinstatement of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at Brown has brought debate about the military’s place on campus to the forefront this semester, the University has received research funding from the Pentagon for years without provoking such heated debate.

It has accepted roughly $10 million annually for the last four years from the Department of Defense in the form of research grants, according to figures from the Office of the Vice President for Research. Military funding accounted for more than 5 percent of the total research budget in fiscal year 2010 and more than 7 percent in 2009, and Brown is among the top 100 universities in the United States in terms of military research funding.

Vice President for Research Clyde Briant said he expects Department of Defense funding — which includes funding from the Air Force, Army and Navy — to remain roughly constant for the current fiscal year.

Relevance to ROTC

Briant said he sees the issue of accepting military funding as separate from the question of whether the University should reinstate ROTC on campus.

“As far as research is concerned, because it’s open to everyone, there’s no discrimination there,” Briant said. “So I see these as two very different matters.”

President Ruth Simmons, when she announced the formation of a committee to review the University’s policies on ROTC, cited the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the federal law that kept gays from serving openly in the military, as the impetus for her decision to convene the committee.

But ROTC was originally expelled from campus decades before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” came into effect. In 1969, the Vietnam War loomed large over debates about ROTC’s place on college campuses, including Brown’s. The decision to ban ROTC from campus was, in part, a refutation of the military in general.

Provost David Kertzer ’69 P’95 P’98, who served on the committee that examined ROTC policy as an undergraduate, dissented from the committee’s recommendation to keep ROTC on campus. “I have found the majority report to have grave implications for the integrity of education at Brown and, indeed, for the relation of the academic community to the larger society,” he wrote in his minority report, according to the Feb. 11, 1969 Herald. Ultimately, Kertzer’s dissent carried the day, and the faculty voted to phase out ROTC in April 1969.

A month before that vote, Students for a Democratic Society, of which Kertzer was a member, passed out leaflets to the faculty that said, “An attack on ROTC is an attack on imperialist policy,” according to the March 4, 1969 Herald.

Catherine Lutz, chair of the anthropology department and a member of the committee on ROTC, said the policy of accepting military funding has not figured in the committee’s discussion.

“We got a very specific charge from Ruth Simmons to look at ROTC and a very specific set of questions about it,” Lutz said. “So we’re not taking on the whole kit and caboodle.”

But the issue of military funding cannot be wholly separated from the ROTC debate because some believe the University should not support the military in any way and thus should not accept military funding, while others maintain that if the University accepts military funding, it should also support ROTC, Lutz said.

Still, the ROTC question is “a large enough project for now” without also tackling the issue of military funding, Lutz said. One reason military funding may not have provoked the same level of debate is ROTC’s more conspicuous campus presence, she added.

“ROTC was very visible — people in uniform on campus,” Lutz said. “Military research happens in departments, in labs, pretty much out of sight. People don’t always know what the funding source is for the different kinds of research.”

One major issue in debating the reinstatement of ROTC is that the military would appoint officers to the faculty, Kertzer told The Herald last month. In discussing the reinstatement of ROTC, some faculty members also take issue with the fact that military officers would have the same voting status as other professors, Lynn Della Grotta ’13, a member of Students for ROTC, wrote in an email to The Herald.

“In this sense, our accepting military research funding and not having ROTC on campus are unrelated,” she wrote. “However, if the military is supporting our research it would make sense that we would support the military.”

Letting the military into the academy

Lutz, whose research includes a look at militarization in American society, said she believes military funding has significantly narrowed the scope and types of questions asked in research. She listed hypnosis — with its potential application to interrogations — and nuclear weaponry as areas in which the military has pushed research in the past.

“The fact that the Department of Defense is the most heavily funded unit of the federal government means that we end up with a lot of knowledge that follows the money there,” Lutz said, adding that this “leaves other areas of important research — like research into alternative energy and transportation systems or tropical disease — understaffed and underfunded.”

The military also offers funding for some research in the social sciences, since it often calls on anthropologists to help understand the culture of a country where military operations might take place. As a result, anthropologists must “walk a fine line” in deciding their level of cooperation with the military, William Beeman, a former adjunct professor of anthropology, told The Herald in 2008.

Military-funded research at Brown includes the development of a nanotechnology that would improve resistance to infrared surveillance equipment and provide shielding against electromagnetic interference.

But some military-funded projects focus on topics with no obvious connection to defense, Briant said, citing a grant of nearly $600,000 awarded to the University by the Army to study DNA replication as it relates to breast cancer.

While some military grants do not beg ethical questions, deciding to accept the military as a source of funding can still get “very murky,” said Harrison Stark ’11, who served two years ago on a Research Advisory Board committee to review ethical considerations for grant funding. Though that committee was initially formed to draft specific policies for military research funding, its goals became more vague. It shifted its focus to “facilitating open analysis and debate of these issues,” according to a report published by the committee.

Stark, a BlogDailyHerald contributor, added that while it can be difficult to turn down money, the University should prioritize academia’s “unique” freedom to critique all areas of society.

“This idea of a research university is good in a lot of ways, but the University shouldn’t be primarily a corporation first and an institution of learning and critique second,” Stark said.

But funding sources are “not easily disentangled,” said James Simmons, professor of biology. Simmons’ research on bats and echolocation has received various forms of military funding since the 1970s. His research is of interest to the military because it can be useful in detecting mines, he said.

In general, research can have lots of different applications, Simmons said, so it would be “counterproductive” to ignore a research area because it could be useful to the military. He believes people should resist the military’s specific actions if they are unethical rather than distrusting it as an institution in general, he added.   

Ethical standards for grants

Brown does not have specific guidelines regarding military funding, Briant said, but the University does have “strong ethical considerations” in reviewing any funding source. Any research must be fully publishable, and no anonymous funding sou
rces are accepted. There is a “stringent” set of policies regarding testing on humans and animals, and conflicts of interest are also considered, he said.

But it is unclear how the faculty in general feels about military funding, since those who oppose it simply would not apply for it, Briant added.

After the Research Advisory Board committee’s discussions on the military’s role in academia two years ago, the University has not reexamined what the committee called the “vexed” issue of military funding. With research funding outside the purview of the ROTC committee, the issue remains largely on the back burner.

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