Roughly 400,000 Vietnamese have died from exposure to Agent Orange since it was sprayed over rice fields and villages during the Vietnam War. An estimated 3 million people have been affected physically by the chemical, including 150,000 children born with defects. Only a few know that the chemical, originally discovered as a plant-growth hormone, was manipulated at the University of Chicago to destroy crops with funds from the Department of Defense.
DOD grants at universities pose a moral dilemma to researchers as they try to weigh the negative and positive implications of their work. There is a lot at stake for the university community as its institutions take on expanding roles to produce the knowledge that has materialized the technology age.
“University research accounts for half of the new technology in the world,” said Dr. Win Phillips, vice president of research at the University of Florida.
University research yields knowledge and technology worth billions of dollars to the U.S. military each year.
DOD has more than doubled the funding at UF over the last decade to $32 million, adjusting for inflation. This, compared to a 32 percent increase in overall research at UF, highlights an increasing acceptance of military research on university campuses.
“All research is important,” Phillips said, adding that more funding from DOD is welcome. “[Research] is a knowledge issue and not a social issue.”
The swell of military funding for research is reminiscent of the Cold War era, when universities were used as breeding grounds for missile guidance systems and chemical and biological weapons like Agent Orange and Coxiella.
Although almost no defense research at universities is this hostile today, it is still used in both military and commercial applications. The ever-increasing defense budget for the U.S. is a strong and consistent source for research money on most college campuses.
“Part of what the military is doing is investing in scientific manpower,” said Dr. Stephen Senturia, a retired Massachusetts Institute of Technology research professor in electrical engineering. “There is always a cynical side to this.”
With limited resources available, some professors will take any research money, even if the research seems loutish or lacks altruism.
Dr. Bhavani Sankar, a professor of 24 years in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at UF, said a growing problem in the national university system is professors taking on research solely based on the pressure to do so; some professors write grant after grant without looking too far into what the research entails.
Senturia added that research money can be very competitive, and professors can “buy out of teaching by getting research.” He also said that much of the money in technological development today is in the military.
Senturia was a young researcher at MIT in 1969 and 1970 when students and professors, including Noam Chomsky, protested the university’s involvement in classified military research on the campus. Though Senturia did not partake in the protests or questionable research, he said it was a scary time for all at the university.
The protests, a mix of formal intellectual debate and organized campus marches, eventually caused the MIT administration to submit to many of the student demands. Most groups that performed classified research on military projects, including nuclear weapon improvements, were prohibited from continuing on campus.
“In times like those, you cannot pretend like things are normal, because they are not,” Senturia said.
Today, some research at universities is restricted to foreign graduate students, Senturia said. This conflicts with the belief that the “first and primary mission of a university is the dissemination and the assimilation of knowledge … and once you are in a university, you should be an equal,” he said.
UF currently has more than 5,000 international students from 130 countries, according to David Sammons, dean of the International Center. Most of these students are in graduate school and make up roughly 6 to 7 percent of the student body.
The International Traffic in Arms Regulations places restrictions on foreign nationals at public and private universities across the country. These restrictions include not being allowed to use certain equipment, enter particular rooms or use computers that hold “sensitive” information. They are allowed, however, to have an American use the equipment for them in order to obtain data vital to their research.
The restricted technologies and information are often dual-use and developed by the military for both commercial and defense pursuits. Because the technology could be used as weaponry, it is restricted to only qualified nations, companies and researchers.
“Most faculty would like to do their research in a manner that they didn’t have to worry about export control,” said Dr. David Norton, associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of Engineering at UF.
Professors have the option to walk away from any research and to limit who they receive funding from, Norton said. Some professors even refuse money from DOD for “reasons of conscience” and “their own personal convictions.”
Much of UF’s military funding and certain government research funding are dependent on following the ITAR.
Professors can lose their jobs over this issue, and graduate students can be expelled. The university can be fined millions of dollars, and research contracts can be lost. Following these regulations requires a lot of energy and a conscious marginalizing of foreigners by the researchers who use these technologies.
“ITAR regulations are a pain in the ass,” said electrical engineering Ph.D. student Justin Zito. “You have to go through a bunch of red tape that slows down the research process.”
For researchers, ITAR ordinances seem to be more of a hassle than a conflict with the university’s mission, which includes creating “the broadly diverse environment necessary to foster multicultural skills and perspectives in its teaching and research.”
Many researchers agree that ITAR rules derive from the presence of military research on campuses. This research gets to universities by a coupling of government initiatives and the willingness of researchers to take defense ardor.
Universities with diverse student bodies can think toward many goals, both positive and negative. The broader struggle for researchers can be more pressing issues, such as the polluted Koppers Inc. industrial plant site here in Gainesville and the growing demand for food, clean water, land and energy across the world.
“It is important for [students] to grow up in a community that has a wider point of view,” Phillips said.
Whether this means accepting military research is the professor’s decision. For a foreign national, there is not much of a choice.