Don’t Cut Research Ties With the Military

July 17, 2015

The new, 542-page independent review commissioned by the ethics committee of the American Psychological Association has generated considerable attention, replete with a front-page story in The New York Times. Documenting the alleged involvement of some of the nation’s leading psychologists in enhanced interrogations conducted by the military and intelligence agencies in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on America, the report accuses some association leaders of using their positions to protect the interrogation program from critics within the Central Intelligence Agency. Furthermore, it concludes, the APA itself "chose its ethics policy based on its goals of helping DOD, managing its PR, and maximizing the growth of the profession."

The findings come in the wake of less-intensive reviews, including a December 2014 report issued by the Senate Intelligence Committee. Indeed, questions of legality, morality, and effectiveness haunted the enhanced-interrogation program even during its heyday and led to its modification late in the administration of George W. Bush and its ban by President Barack Obama soon after he came to office.

Defenders of the program quoted in the APA review maintained that psychologists had an obligation to help safeguard the nation, while critics contended that participation in the program contradicted the association’s ethics code by assisting in the infliction of harm.

Commentators are weighing in on the APA report and on enhanced interrogation. We wish not to join them but to raise another question: Will concerns about violations of the APA ethics code unduly weaken important ties between higher education and the defense agencies? Even if the findings of the APA review are true, that does not mean academe should abandon national-security consultation and research.

Higher education provides the government knowledge about national security, while at the same time often furnishing a check on government excess on pressure-packed issues. Moreover, upholding academe’s moral responsibility to provide dispassionate advice on policy calls not for simplistic or absolutist postures, but for the often difficult and burdensome exercise of judgment about the appropriate balance between national security and the ethical integrity of academe. Both are important.

Higher education in America has a long history of promoting interaction with the military. The Morrill Act of 1862 — considered one of the most successful pieces of federal legislation in American history — supported the expansion of higher education through the sale of federal lands. We often forget that the act was passed to enhance practical education in the agricultural and mechanical arts — and to promote military education and the study of military tactics.

Scholars and researchers also have a long tradition of working with the government in the area of national defense, a relationship that has prevailed in terms of both on-campus and off-campus research. During World War I, scientific research aided in the development of weaponry, and campuses were turned into veritable training grounds for troops. World War II took the relationship to a higher and even more intense level, especially in the areas of weapons research, area studies, and the psychological aspects of warfare. Psychologists worked with the Office of Strategic Services, the Office of War Information, the Strategic Bombing Survey, and with military agencies on issues like the evaluation of troops, psychological warfare and propaganda, and the nature of the enemy’s mind-set. Notable participants like Erik Erikson, Walter Langer, and Henry Murray were motivated by both professional and patriotic interests.

After World War II, the so-called Cold War university emerged, a complex web of relationships among universities, the government, private foundations, and corporations that was supported by billions of dollars. Scholars like Jeremi Suri, Rebecca S. Lowen, Mark Solovey, and Matthew Levin have revealed the tensions between the new policy-driven research and traditional scholarship.

For example, in Henry Kissinger and the American Century (Harvard University Press, 2007), Suri, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, traced how influential post-World War II policy makers moved between academe and the intelligence agencies, often with "the intentional blurring of the lines between academic and policy analysis, as well as scholarship and national defense." Their concern was to protect democracy, even at the cost of involving the United States in covert and open military operations.

Though the Cold War university contributed to the defeat of the totalitarian Soviet Union, it always had critics who believed higher education was selling its soul in exchange for governmental largess. But it was the heated controversy surrounding the Vietnam War that brought the complex and cozy relationships among stakeholders into serious question.

Protesters attacked what they saw as higher education’s complicity in militarism and an immoral and wasteful war and its participation in secret and classified research. In reaction, many campuses enacted policies restricting research that could not be published or that was classified, and a number of elite private universities discontinued the Reserve Officer Training Corps, which had been officially established on the eve of America’s entry into World War I but traced its roots back to the Morrill Act’s promotion of training in "military tactics." Military-history research and courses were marginalized. Veterans felt alienated on campus.

Despite the 1960s reaction and restrictions, higher-education research and consultation with the government have remained important to national defense. That has especially been the case after the 9/11 attacks, which have led to a renewal of respect for issues of national security. In our own state, for example, the Legislature recently lifted restrictions on the University of Wisconsin’s ability to participate in classified national-security research.

After Congress voted to rescind the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy in 2010, several universities that had eliminated ROTC in the 1960s moved to bring it back, including Harvard, Yale, and Stanford. Recent years have also witnessed a return of military history — often more broadly defined than in the past — and related courses. In addition, national programs such as the Post-9/11 GI Bill have brought more veterans to campus. And major national-security programs have hired as faculty such leading retired military leaders as Gen. David Petraeus, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and Col. Peter R. Mansoor. All such measures benefit higher education and the nation.

Just as the idea of ROTC was not only to provide officers for the war, but to expose the professional military to the influences of civil society, so the contemporary network of relationships among universities and defense agencies is broader and more nuanced than stereotypes of nefarious secret research portray. The military supports a complex set of institutional connections that bring civilians and military personnel together. Major graduate programs in international relations and national security teach military personnel on leave, and civilians have opportunities to study and work at military educational institutions. For example, one-quarter of the faculty at West Point are civilians, and the U.S. Naval War College has a special program for civilian government workers.

Meanwhile, think tanks like the RAND Corporation and academic institutes and centers do policy work on military-related matters. The University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center has a prostate-cancer study sponsored by the Department of Defense. Indeed, the department supports a wide range of research on health, environmental, and engineering problems.

University researchers who assist in top-secret military research and consulting off campus share that breadth of interest. One of the most prominent groups working in this area is JASON, an independent group of scientists that advises the government on science, technology, and military policy. During the Vietnam War, JASON was attacked for providing controversial advice to the DOD, but it survived, and its interests have expanded. In addition to military research, especially related to nuclear capability, the group has worked on such matters as global warming, acid rain, renewable energy, and cyber warfare.

Should scholars be restricted from doing such research just because it has potentially "questionable" military applications? Should the National Institutes of Health be barred, for example, from supporting campus-based research on sensory deprivation? We think not: Those studies will be conducted in any case, perhaps in other quarters that might be less concerned about the ethical implications. And banning certain kinds of research in the name of preventing the military establishment from profiting from social-science and scientific knowledge stifles scholarly inquiry.

A military presence on campus also provides numerous benefits. The All Volunteer Force in 1973 eliminated a major source of campus discontent: the draft. But it also contributed to what became known as the "civil-military gap," both a physical reality and a state of mind. Rather than helping bridge the gap, colleges in the post-Vietnam era have widened it. As David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale University, noted in 2005, "Here in academia, my colleagues seem determined to turn American soldiers into an out-of-sight, out-of-mind servant class who are expected to do their duty and keep their mouths shut."

The shift in those attitudes in recent years is to be applauded. The classic argument for ROTC has always been that it brings elements of the university to the military, thereby exposing the military to civilian ways and making it more accountable to "We the People." Another argument points in the opposite direction as well: An appropriate military presence on campus can contribute to the civic and liberal education of nonmilitary students.

The key is finding the right balance between protecting academic integrity and promoting national security. Academic disciplines already have codes of ethics that stress the importance of maintaining academic freedom and ethical treatment of those studied. However one comes down regarding the specific conclusions of the APA report on ethical violations, the fact of the review is a sign that academe and the disciplines can ultimately rise to the occasion.

As America faces an escalating number of dangers, the last thing higher education should do is to turn its back on responsible engagement with the institutions of national security.

Donald Downs is an emeritus professor of political science and John Sharpless is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.