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Cybersecurity researchU Wisconsin, shedding 1960s anti-classified research image, launches cybersecurity center

Published 14 January 2015

A new cybersecurity research center being built in partnership with private firms and the University of Wisconsin(UW) system aims to attract high-tech research dollars to the state, but administrators must balance the secrecy required for classified research with the openness which is the foundation of academic science. The state legislature passed a 2014 law allowing UW to accept contract for classified work partly in hopes that the school system will lose the perception of being an anti-classified-research environment, a perception dating back to campus protests against military research in the 1960s.

A new cybersecurity research center being built in partnership with private firms and the University of Wisconsin (UW) system aims to attract high-tech research dollars to the state, but administrators must balance the secrecy required for classified research with the openness which is the foundation of academic science. The state legislature passed a 2014 law allowing UW to accept contract for classified work partly in hopes that the school system will lose the perception of being an anti-classified-research environment.

According to Science magazine, that perception dates back to campus protests against military research in the 1960s. Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, a Madison-based group that advises the state on tech-related subjects and economic development, notes that protests against military research peaked at UW’s flagship Madison campus in 1970, when four activists opposed to U.S. military action in Vietnam bombed Sterling Hall, home to the Army Mathematics Research Center. A scientist not involved with the center’s work was killed. “It had a chilling effect,” Still says. “It meant that our researchers that were cleared to do such work really couldn’t do it on campus in Wisconsin. If they wanted to do it they had to take it elsewhere.”

Classified academic research continued at UW, with the university allowing professors to operate under special circumstances, said Marsha Mailick, UW Madison’s interim vice chancellor of research. The 2014 law simply endorses classified academic research on UW campuses, but it is “not a turning point,” Mailick said. “The same faculty members that conducted classified research before this bill was passed or before this building was built are still doing it.”

In response to the new law, the Faculty Senate is reviewing ways to simplify the approval process for faculty members who wish to pursue classified research. Members of the Wisconsin Security Research Consortium in Madison, a public-private alliance that owns the new 120-square-meter facility, hopes approvals for UW faculty to conduct classified research will help create a robust research hub.

Some experts on federal research grants warn, however, that the amount of money dedicated to classified academic research is overblown. Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities in Washington, D.C., which represents major research campuses, is one of those experts. “There is a view in some universities and probably some state legislatures that this is an area where there’s lots of money if only you would be willing to do it,” he said. “I totally disagree. I don’t think post-9/11 there was this flood of money.” Designing a campus to work on classified research comes with significant costs. Building requirements with strict security controls are just the beginning, Smith said.

Researchers and graduate students are often not allowed to publish results- a vital benefit for researchers in academia. Additionally, foreign students and faculty can be barred from working on classified research work.

Some research universities have tried to balance academic freedom and classified work by conducting classified research in labs that are nearby but not on campus. Johns Hopkins University conducts classified research at its affiliated Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), which is operated by a nonprofit arm of the university. Massachusetts Institute of Technology operates the Lincoln Laboratory, located northwest of Boston, through a contract with the U.S. Air Force. For UW, the Wisconsin Information Security Center, which is owned by the Wisconsin Security Research Consortium and not an official part of the school system, will bring UW into a select club of universities affiliated with labs built to conduct classified research.