There's nothing like a fresh Defense Department contract to inject a little controversy into a flagging antiwar movement.
Not long ago, a Stanford Daily article asked, "Where have all the anti-war protests gone?" The answer may have come in the form of an April announcement that the university had won a five-year, $105 million military computing research contract.
Last week, 65 faculty members took up the cause when they published an open letter in the Stanford Daily questioning the lack of transparency about the contents of the grant proposal, the ethical implications of supporting research that might have military applications, and the possibility that the U.S. Army could impose restrictions on research funded by the grant.
Bernard Roth, a professor of mechanical engineering who was involved with the faculty outcry, said the group had sent a copy of the letter to the administration and was awaiting a response. One of his concerns was whether the contract potentially conflicts with Stanford's research policies, such as its openness requirements and the basic independence guaranteed to researchers.
"The letter was proposed basically to send to the people who are supposed to be monitoring compliance with the Stanford rules ... and to raise public awareness of the issues," he said.
This wouldn't be the first time in recent memory that members of Stanford's faculty have questioned specific types of research. In May, the university rejected a proposed ban on research funded by tobacco companies, following a similar outcome at the University of California.
The grant will relocate the Army High-Performance Computing Research Center, originally at the University of Minnesota, to Mountain View, Calif. -- the home of both Google and NASA's Ames Research Center, where the center will be located. The Stanford-led project will be staffed by researchers from various universities and NASA, and the center will eventually host visiting scholars from the U.S. Military Academy, at West Point.
In addition to using its computing power to "develop new materials for military vehicles and equipment, improve wireless battlefield communication, advance detection of biological or chemical attacks and stimulate innovations in supercomputing itself," according to the Stanford announcement, the project will assist local schools' efforts to teach math and computer science -- an aspect that the faculty letter singled out for criticism.
"[T]he 'outreach' program may in fact be envisioned as a feeder system, designed to use Stanford's name, prestige and resources to channel gifted students toward interest and experience in military applications, military research and military research centers," the letter said.
Jeffrey H. Wachtel, senior assistant to the president of Stanford, said in an e-mail that "the argument advanced in the petition is a political one that people are free to raise. However, it is a cherished principle of academic freedom that our faculty make decisions about the funding they seek to support their research."
Academic freedom is certainly at the heart of the issue. On the one hand, faculty members are free to accept no-strings funding from sources willing to support vital research. On the other, the letter claims, is the question of whether the Army contract could undermine academic freedom by imposing restrictions on potential research projects. "[T]he power of the Army's manager ... in determining the research agenda of the center appears to constitute a form of veto power that seems to contradict the University's own guidelines concerning faculty independence," the letter says.
Professors say that on top of the academic dispute is a moral one: whether university-facilitated military research poses ethical implications, or, as the university maintains, whether it simply constitutes another avenue of expanding the realm of knowledge in a particular area that may have significant practical applications in the future.
The debate plays into what many at Stanford, and across the country, evidently consider to be a near-dormant enterprise: the campus antiwar movement, which has in recent years concentrated on calling attention to military recruiters. While there hasn't been a concrete response from students so far, local and national activists say it will likely become a rallying point in future campaigns.
Omar Shakir, a senior graduating in less than two weeks, has been helping to form an organization called the Antiwar Coalition in response to general student apathy. "The issue of the grant is going to be a big focus for the coalition next year," he said.
The issue of university defense contracts has also attracted some attention at the national level. Randy Wilson of the Student Peace Action Network said her organization is beginning to work on materials to support a more coordinated campaign.
"There are so many defense and weapons technology research funds going into our schools, which was kind of a byproduct of the war," Wilson said, adding that activists are "using that as a very local way to address the war as well as a form of counter-recruiting for the military-industrial complex because students are working on this research, therefore they're kind of being trained to work for these industries."
The issue of campus "militarization" has surely been around for years, mostly revolving around the issue of nuclear research and the anti-nuclear movement. Last month, students at several University of California campuses held a hunger strike to protest, among other things, the system's involvement with the Los Alamos National Laboratory research facility.
While there is certainly an antiwar component to these demonstrations, they can also be understood as a significant arm of the campus environmental movement. That has also come into play in the Boston area, where the National Institutes of Health has approved the construction of a biolab facility. Critics say the lab could foster research into biological weapons and endanger the local population.
"People are looking for campaigns that hit closer to home because [the Iraq war] is such an enormous target," said Angela Kelly, a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts-Boston who is involved with Massachusetts Peace Action, a part of the national Peace Action Network.