GW looks to capitalize on covert research

GW plans to lift a ban on classified research to allow some professors to work with state secrets – a move that could rake in millions of dollars yearly.

For the first time since the Vietnam War, researchers would handle top-secret information related to areas like cybersecurity, homeland security and physics, if the final 10-year strategic plan includes a proposal to reverse a 2003 ban on covert research.

Vice President for Research Leo Chalupa said the initiative – which would likely require a special facility, technology and security detail – also would be pricey, but he could not yet estimate costs because discussions are still in the early stages.

The policy would be a step forward from the 2003 policy that was drawn up in “a different world,” he said.

“We’re a different country than we were nine years ago. The faculty is different. The kind of research they’re doing is different,” Chalupa said. “Our colleagues at other universities feel it’s in the national interest to be doing this kind of work, and we should consider joining them.”

The University has historically shut down proposals for classified research on campus, but it did maintain some secret projects during the Vietnam War era that incited student protests, former executive vice president for academic affairs Don Lehman said.

As it looks to put the policy proposal in front of a Faculty Senate committee over the next year, the University will first have to determine its relationship with the classified research institute. While most schools ban classified research, some universities like Johns Hopkins and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology run their classified research institutes off campus or as separate entities.

Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory is run by the university, and is its only facility designated to do classified research. The laboratory brings in $600 million in research dollars every year, Chalupa said.

Chalupa said he has informally discussed how to implement a classified research policy with administrators at Virginia Tech, which established its facility two years ago.

“[Virginia Tech is] out there in the middle of farm country, and they’re doing classified research and we’re right here, a short ride from the CIA and FBI and NSA,” Chalupa said. “It seems like at least it’s worth a discussion, and that’s where we’re at.”

The policy reversal could set off another debate about classified research, Chalupa said, because the study is based on restricted access to information, a keystone of higher education.

“On the one hand, you’re balancing the well-being of the U.S. That’s a big deal for me and any American. On the other hand, you have the tradition of academia, which is bringing in information and open discourse,” Chalupa said.

Engineering professor Charles Garris, who chairs the Faculty Senate’s professional ethics and academic freedom committee, said the money the research would bring in could help fund academics and further research, but it will open up issues with secrecy.

“The idea of classified research is very controversial,” he said. “There will be new discussions and new debate over pros and cons of it. There could be academic freedom issues there, because if you’re doing research for a classified entity, you can’t publish it.”

The University also likely would have to shut out international students from working on research with state secrets. One-third of graduate students in the School of Engineering and Applied Science are international students.

Timothy Wood, an assistant professor of computer science, said he supported the idea because his research on how to manage massive computer systems draws interest from intelligence agencies. But leaving out foreign graduate students would put up a logistical hurdle, he added.

“It’d be a tricky thing to figure out, because most of our graduate students are international. It’d be difficult to get the manpower for people to work on these projects, because we don’t have enough domestic students to work on this project in the first place,” Wood said.

Mark Reeves, a physics professor, said the benefits of a classified research enterprise would far outweigh the concern by allowing GW researchers to tackle crucial national security problems.

“My dad did classified research in the Nevada Test Site, and he couldn’t go home and talk to my mom about it,” Reeves said, referring to the Department of Energy nuclear testing project conducted in the 1950s. “It was just one of those things. He still made a huge contribution.”

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