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The futile attempt to lock up knowledge

Shortly after World War II, a student found a book of common mathematical tables marked "Secret" in the college library. That futile attempt to lock up knowledge could be a metaphor for a modern threat to academic research freedom.

This time the threat is more subtle. It arises within the university community as the lure of industry sponsorship and the dominance of self-interest over collegiality spreads through researchers' ranks. Universities are used to dealing with secrecy in government-sponsored military projects. They generally move such research off campus. But they are ill prepared to deal with this internal threat to the traditional free flow of information.

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"Secrecy in science sounds repugnant," observes Charles Vest, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Yet secrecy is a reality" that universities now face. To that end, MIT and the American Association for the Advancement of Science recently co-sponsored a conference on science and secrecy held at MIT.

As scientists and university administrators are discovering, this is more than a matter of money over traditional ethics. The situation is more like a garden in which a weed has spread unnoticed until it threatens to transform the garden itself.

Alan Hartford of Massachusetts General Hospital has found strong hints of this in a survey of 2,000 university life scientists, published in 1997 in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Two thirds of the faculty scientists sampled had industrial ties and a quarter of them had industrial research support. However, 20 percent of the sample reported delaying publication of research for reasons of secrecy.

This is where the subtle nature of the industrial lure shows itself, Mr. Hartford explained. The study showed that it wasn't the availability of industry funding, but the perception of possible commercial results - including royalties - that impelled scientists to secrecy. They felt their salary increases and decisions on tenure were influenced by their involvement with industry.

Hartford warned that universities must be careful or they will encourage a new type of scientist and a new type of research that compromises traditional intellectual freedom. "We're talking about good people drifting, " says Lita Nelson of MIT's Technology Licensing Office. "There's a powerful tide running. I don't see a countervailing force to this market-driven tide."

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