Research Under Fire

The Berkeleyan, a publication of UC Berkeley, has a great, in-depth piece on a trend we’ve noted and complained about in this space quite often: the increasing use of restrictions on federally supported fundamental research and its impact on university-based research. I’ll just cite a little bit, but I urge you to read the article.

DARPA, explains Lee’s colleague David Culler, “is a very strange place these days.” Just months after Lee’s brush with export controls, Culler, also an EECS professor, had a similar experience. In 2000 he was awarded an agency contract to develop hardware and software for miniaturized wireless computer networks, utilizing open-source software that would be shared with the wider research community. “This whole notion of openness was fundamental,” Culler says. “That’s what we wanted to do.”
In February 2004, however, DARPA’s program manager sent an e-mail to Culler and more than a dozen other researchers working on various aspects of the program, asking that source codes and possibly other material — the message, says Culler, was “ambiguous” — be removed from websites. Unsure of what to do, Culler consulted with Freedman’s office, which advised him to take no such action.
DARPA, meanwhile, pondered its next steps, eventually opting to split the program into two major segments, with basic research remaining at universities and classified work going to military contractors like Northrup Grumman. The decision, Culler says, wound up costing Berkeley “very little,” though other universities lost “quite a lot.”
“The money basically moved from the universities to the military contractors,” he says. “It’s a tremendous shift in where the resources have gone.”
More is at stake than just money, however. Ironically, DARPA’s efforts to “short-circuit” the research process — to short-shrift basic research in favor of specific military applications — could have the effect of hampering, not improving, America’s security.
“If you’re not able to keep the basic-research engine alive,” Culler explains, the result is likely to be less innovation and competitiveness, as other countries pick up the slack. “There is absolutely a need for basic research,” he insists. “Ultimately, in the long term, that contributes to an advantage in national security.”

Thanks to Spaf for the tip.

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