The Pentagon has made a powerful comeback on American college and university campuses. The recent blossoming of defense budgets, coupled with the increasingly sophisticated technological needs of the military, has created a boom for university-based military research. The focal point, although not the only factor in this growth, is President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), popularly known as ``star wars.''
Department of Defense support for research at universities and their affiliated laboratories was more than $1.2 billion last year, about double the $650 million provided in 1980, according to the National Science Foundation. The Pentagon now accounts for 16 percent of all federally funded university research.
This surge in funding has created opportunities and dilemmas for universities across the United States.
``Defense is now the BMOC - Big Money on Campus,'' laments one university scientist who is troubled by the trend.
Researchers at universities are paid by the Pentagon to study such things as the impact of nuclear explosions on satellite communications, new biological weapons, and ways to generate electricity in outer space.
The growth of military funding comes at a time when other sources of research funds are becoming increasingly scarce. Many basic industries are under pressure from foreign competitors and are scaling back their support for university research. The Defense Department recently surpassed the National Science Foundation as a supplier of funds for university research.
``This was an extremely hot issue in the 1960s, but then it died for 15 years,'' says Gordon Adams, director of the Defense Budget Project at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington. ``It's only been revived with the rise of SDI.''
Researchers at a number of universities, as well as in some private laboratories, have signed petitions against the SDI program.
Dr. Adams points out that most of the new defense spending is being directed toward private industry and is aimed at the development of applied technologies, not the basic research that dominates most university laboratories.
Another moderating factor is the leveling off of defense spending in the last year. Congress permitted only a 1.5 percent increase in military spending for 1987. Some analysts predict no increase in 1988.
Within universities, military funding is not evenly distributed. Fields such as particle physics, electrical engineering, and computer science have snared the lion's share of the increases. In some institutions, the bulk of the funding in these key technologies is provided by the Pentagon.
To analyze the impact of military funding on university research, Adams says, requires looking at these individual areas. ``There's been no wholesale restructuring of the scientific community in this country, as some critics have suggested,'' he says. ``But in a university, small amounts of money can make a big difference - especially when [the funds are] concentrated in a few fields.''
Some universities are impacted more than others. Schools such as Johns Hopkins University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have a long history of doing research for the military and are more likely to feel the effects. MIT is 53rd on the list of the 200 largest defense contractors for the Pentagon.
Observers are concerned about maintaining the openness of university research in an era when more and more work has links to national security. Some heated conflicts have already arisen over whether or not the Defense Department should be able to review or block the publication of research.
``We simply don't accept a contract if there are any restrictions of that kind,'' says Alice Oliver, associate director of grants and contracts at Yale University.
Although Yale and most other major universities have clear policies that define the conditions under which they will accept military funding, many smaller and less well-known schools do not. Some analysts argue that this could lead to serious problems in the future. Second-rank schools, one source says, might feel obliged to make concessions to the Pentagon to win contracts.
Many prestigious research universities have separate laboratories for classified research, such as the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and Lincoln Laboratory at MIT. But even with separate facilities, problems still arise.
At the University of California in Berkeley a researcher working at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (which does unclassified research) recently had publication of his work delayed several months by the Pentagon when it became clear that the work might have implications for SDI.
``We take great care to negotiate our contracts to minimize any prepublication reviews - whether for [the Department of Defense] or private industry,'' says Martha Krebs, associate director for planning and development at Lawrence Berkeley. ``Actually, we have most of our problems with industry.''
Even some scientists opposed to military research admit that Pentagon funds often support important areas of basic research that might otherwise be neglected. ``Much as I hate to admit it, a lot of military funding is being used for good basic engineering science,'' says Dr. James Melcher, director of the Laboratory for Electromagnetic Systems at MIT. He argues, however, that the overall impact of military support is to distort the economy.