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Academic freedom is usually defined in political terms. But a flurry of marriages between commercial and independent research institutions has raised the issue of how free inquiry can be from the interests of those putting up the money. When medical research is funded by a drug company, for example, are the avenues of research delimited and the results controlled for the company's benefit? Now the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has brought up a $130 million question: whether MIT can link itself to a biomedical research institution that may reach such a multimillion-dollar magnitude without sacrificing its long-honored academic integrity.

MIT was said to have preferred being given the money to use independently. Instead it has agreed to grant tenured professorships to scientists who will in effect be employed by a separate research facility. It is being backed by and named for Edwin C. Whitehead, reportedly the biggest stock-holder of the Revlon Corporation.

The die was cast only after considerable controversy and public airing of the matter. The academic community - and everyone else concerned about untrammelled research - will be watching to see how well MIT can carry through on its administration's judgment that the relationship can work for the benefit of all without compromising the standards of a great institution.

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