Already restive over the issue of disinvestment in South Africa, the nation's university community is becoming a lightning rod in another spirited debate: President Reagan's ``star wars'' program. This time, however, the opposition is not coming from placard-toting students. Instead, it is brewing among academic scientists and researchers, some of whom are refusing to do research on the proposed missile-defense shield and who are circulating petitions urging colleagues to do the same.
The controversy is reviving a debate on college campuses over the proper role of universities in military research. It is also aggravating recently strained relations between the federal government, particularly the Pentagon, and colleges over issues surrounding a need to balance academic freedom with secrecy in national-security research.
On the surface, the weapons debate might appear reminiscent of ones in the 1960s, when opposition to the Vietnam war resulted in much Pentagon-sponsored research being chased off college campuses.
Today, however, while some university scientists are boycotting the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), often on political grounds or because they think it is technically dubious, hundreds of others are queuing up for what is likely to be a major source of federal research funds.
In some cases, the researchers include some who, even though not ideologically opposed to the program, worry about the long-term impact of heavy doses of military spending on basic research.
The diversity of views reflects several forces at work today: the clamor for more research money at a time when many universities are financially pinched, and the growing prominence of military R&D spending on college campuses.
``I don't see the fundamental challenging of the legitimacy of research supported by the Defense Department that characterized protests in the '60s,'' says Robert Rosenzweig, president of the American Association of Universities. ``What concerns a lot of university people is the implications of a crash program -- putting a lot of money into a relatively small part of the research community very quickly.''
Recently, petitions asking Congress to end support for star wars or urging researchers to boycott work on it have been circulating at about a dozen universities. These include Cornell University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Similar drives are said to be under way at some private research centers and in Canada.
A chief complaint, besides the technical objections, is concern that any effort to develop a missile-defense shield could threaten arms control agreements and unleash a new arms race. ``The program is a trillion-dollar fraud that will convince people they are safe from nuclear war when they are not,'' contends Michael Weissman, an associate professor of physics at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, where more than 90 faculty members and 75 graduate students have signed a petition. Oth er concerns being raised:
Worry that research on the defense system could lead to some work being classified, resulting in restrictions on publication of findings and undermining scientific communication among scientists.
Pentagon officials argue that virtually all contracts to academia involve basic research. Any classified work will be done in industry or at labs off campus. Yet this has not mollified all scientists, some of whom believe it inevitable that part of the basic research will have practical applications for weapons and end up restricted.
Concern that acceptance of SDI contracts by individual scientists could be seen as an endorsement by a university and used to garner political support. Several months ago, the presidents of Caltech and MIT strongly objected to the use of their institutions' names for a research consortium set up by the SDI organization. Only a couple of faculty, not the institutions, were participating in the project. The project's wording was changed.
As one SDI official notes, a researcher's acceptance doesn't mean a university endorses SDI -- but it does indicate support for the research, as schools must OK on-campus work.
Concern that such a large infusion of military funds can divert too many resources and scientists away from other types of basic research. This is partly an outgrowth of anxiety over the increasing military orientation of federal research.
At present, the Department of Health and Human Services remains the largest federal sponsor of R&D in academia ($2.8 billion in fiscal 1985). But Department of Defense funding in recent years has been growing faster than that from other major federal sources. DOD contributions ($930 million) now almost equal those of the National Science Foundation ($1.03 billion). The SDI program is projected to add several hundred million dollars more over the next five years.
Many university scientists welcome the return of DOD money in general and SDI work in particular. They see it pushing ahead basic research in many fields, ranging from computer science to laser physics. Others, pinched for research funds, see the SDI program as the only way to survive. This enthusiasm is reflected in the number of project applications -- close to 2,000 so far -- academic scientists have submitted to the SDI office.
SDI officials play down the opposition among university scientists. They see it as the work of a relatively small number of people. They also don't see its having any effect on their ability to draw top-notch talent to do research.
``We don't really get excited by two or three universities that don't like what we're doing,'' says Dwight Duston of SDI's Innovative Science and Technology Office, which sponsors the basic research in universities. ``We're more enthused by the overwhelming response of the academic community to our most recent solicitation.''