Monday, May 14, 2007


When I was an Undergraduate (1976-1980) the question
Would you take grant money from the dept of defense?
was in the air. There were stories of people who thought they were working on medicine who were actually working on germ warfare. There were also stories about the people who worked on the Atom Bomb (knowing what they were working on) later regretting it.

I heard this kind of discussion less in grad school (1980-1985). The last time I ever heard it brought up at all was in 1989 when a grad student asked me if I take money from dept of defense. Since I've never been offered such money it was a moot point (I've never applied for such money, but not out of any moral principle.) I recently met up with that grad student (now a professor) and he is working on a germ warfare grant.

The question of who you take money from is asked in some circles- crypto comes to mind. But how about the general question- who would you take grant money from? There are several factors that people tend to lump together, but they are different:
  1. Do they let you publish and post and talk about your research (e.g., NSA, Microsoft, might not)
  2. Do you have a moral objection to who the person asking you? (e.g., the military)
  3. Do you have a moral objection to the type of work being asked of you? (e.g., helping an advertising company sell more cigarettes to minors. When you question this they reply `if teenagers don't smoke, what will they do after sex?')
  4. Is the work of interest to you?
  5. Do you have to have a product in the end?
  6. @
  7. Will working on this put you in actual danger? (e.g., Tony Soprano wants you do use your knowledge of resource allocation to settle a gang war.)
There are many different possibilities. Here are two extreme cases:
  1. Al Queda wants to give you a grant to work on something you like, and you can publish it, and it has no possible practical value. (You can replace Al Queda by whatever you think is a great evil.)
  2. Greenpeace wants to know how to best lie to the public to force them to take action on Global Warming. You can't publish, post, or talk about it. The work is boring, and you find lying morally bad. But the cause is just! (You can replace Greenpeace and Global Warming with some other organization and cause that you agree with and think is very important.)


  1. -Al Queda wants to give you a grant to work on something you like, and you can publish it, and it has no possible practical value. (You can replace Al Queda by whatever you think is a great evil.)

    In USA, it is called NSF funding.
    I cannot find a reason to refuse it. In fact I am desperately
    in need of one.

  2. OK, I'll bite: why is NSF a "great evil", on par with Al Queda?

  3. Bill,

    Your example of Microsoft is incorrect. You could use examples of other companies who are well known to be secretive.

    Microsoft is known for openness in technical circles. You may already know that Microsoft has about 3000 bloggers. The blogger who made corporate blogging popular is an ex-Microsoftee.

    Microsoft does not restrict publications. Though employees are advised to use judgement to protect the intellectual property in timely manner. Fortunately in the USA, we have one year to file a patent after publication.

    Note: The commentator is a principal researcher in Microsoft.

  4. In my last comment (@4), I used the last word "publication" in a broader sense.

    Technically the right word (phrase) is "public disclosure".

  5. With the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, your institution is required to file patents on your NSF/NIH-sponsored research inventions and to try to commercialize them if possible (and you are required to disclose them to your institution). There can be some good reasons to do this but there can be some negative consequences -- for example, you aren't supposed to give your invention away even if would be for a social good.

  6. Your Al Qaeda example is a variant of a justification for accepting DoD money that I have often heard:

    "Would you rather that they spend money on bombs or on my militarily useless research?"

    A slightly different excuse for which there clearly is some historical justification:

    "This is work that will benefit society as a whole, not just the military. They happen to have the the money to fund it but that is just an accident of our political system."

    Even if you haven't taken the research dollars personally, if you are at a large enough US university you probably have benefited directly or indirectly from DoD funding for someone in your department. A major component of the funding crises in CS in the US over the last several years has been due to reductions in that support as DARPA has moved more towards funding corporations rather than universities.

    Many people have seen DARPA simply as an alternative to the NSF that had the possibility of larger dollar amounts and a different funding model based on entrepreneurial program directors rather than on peer review that therefore was less conservative than NSF. Of course these contracts (not grants) involved annoying reporting requirements, meetings to attend, and sometimes sudden changes of the rules for the next funding increment that required deliverables with potential military application. (Time to bail out?)

    These days, the requirements about WHO can work on these grants can be as much concern as where the money comes from. In that respect, non-military Homeland Security funding has essentially the same problem.

    I can see that it can be OK to work with DoD funding (even though I might not choose to do so myself) but at the other end of your spectrum, I can't see a good justification for falsifying research ostensibly to aid a good cause. It may compromise the validity of the research of other people who rely on your research and in the long run it is probably counter-productive.

  7. 2007 Godel Prize announced:

    Steven Rudich and Alexander Razborov

  8. I don't remember that being a controversy in the 1970s. It was more of a 1980s issue.

  9. I would like to congratulate Steven and Sasha!

    I would also like to congratulate the computational complexity community for rewarding the bearers of bad news, whereas, historically, so many communities would have simply stoned these two gentlemen until both were dead.

    Let the anonymous trolls begin with their "Sasha Razborov never had any deep results" flame-bait.

  10. Replace "Al Qaeda" with "George W. Bush".

  11. "Let the anonymous trolls begin with their "Sasha Razborov never had any deep results" flame-bait."

    LOL!! I know this is getting way off topic, but as the poster who commented immediately after the utter jackass who said that about Nancy Lynch, THANK YOU VERY MUCH for getting out in front of any BS this time around. And, PS, I was a professional fundraiser (among other things) before I was a computer scientist, and from my professional experience: there is no such thing as free money. All money has strings attached. Period. The real issue for anyone reading this is, "What are those strings, and am I willing to wear them?"

  12. It is interesting to see the general attitude towards Defense in academia..

    Contrast this, with people who are ready to fight risking their lives and here we are not willing to take money to do research..

    In fact there would be circles in which working for DoD would be an honor, - patriotism and what not..

    I am not condemning such an attitude, but is it our education that prevents us from getting carried away by the rhetoric of patriotism?

  13. Thanks, Anon #8 for the tip. I've long been a big fan of the natural proofs work, and this news prodded me into writing a quick semi-technical blurb on this work.