University Research Park at the University of Wisconsin, Madison

University Research Park, where the new center is located.

UW-Madison, University Communications © Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System

Shh! Wisconsin seeking to get in on secret cybersecurity research

The state of Wisconsin is ramping up its presence in the hush-hush world of classified science. A new cybersecurity research center, being built in cooperation with private firms and the University of Wisconsin (UW) system, aims to lure more high-tech research dollars to the state, particularly some of the billions spent each year on classified work.

The Wisconsin Information Security Center in Madison brings UW into a select club of U.S. universities affiliated with labs specifically built to shield secret research from spying eyes. It also highlights the tricky act universities face in balancing the openness that is the bedrock of academic science with the secrecy demanded by agencies funding classified projects.

The Wisconsin legislature last year passed a law explicitly allowing the university system to take contracts for classified work. Backers said the bill and the new center are aimed at overcoming a perceived wariness on UW campuses toward secret science.

That ambivalence dates back to campus protests against military research that began in the 1960s, says Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, a Madison-based group that advises the state on tech-related subjects and economic development. Those protests peaked at UW’s flagship Madison campus in 1970, when four young 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.”

The protests never completely halted classified academic research in the state, however, says a top UW Madison administrator. The university has long allowed professors to conduct classified research under special circumstances, and some currently do, said Marsha Mailick, UW Madison’s interim vice chancellor of research. So the new state legislation, while explicitly endorsing secret science on campus, was “not a turning point,” Mailick says. “The same faculty members that conducted classified research before this bill was passed or before this building was built are still doing it.”

Still, in response to the new state law, the Faculty Senate is reviewing ways to streamline how faculty members get approval to pursue classified research. And members of the Wisconsin Security Research Consortium in Madison, a public-private alliance that owns the new facility, are hoping such approvals will help create a thriving research hub. The 120-square-meter facility is part of a larger building located at UW Madison’s University Research Park, a 105-hectare development that’s already home to a number of commercial labs. The facility, which could be expanded in the future, is finished but currently unoccupied. It’s awaiting final certification of security features required for classified research, says Jack Heinemann, director of the security consortium.

Wisconsin isn’t the only state jockeying to attract secret science funding. In August 2013, the National Security Agency (NSA) announced that it would open a new lab focused on data analysis on the campus of North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

But talk of a gush of new money for classified academic research in the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks and more recent cyberattacks is generally overblown, says Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities in Washington, D.C., which represents major research campuses. “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 says. “I totally disagree. I don’t think post-9/11 there was this flood of money.”

Secret science can come with significant costs, Smith notes. It has to be done in a building with strict security controls, and researchers and graduate students are often restricted from publishing results—something vital for advancement in academia and for sharing new discoveries with the world. And students from outside the United States can be barred from the work.

U.S. research universities often try to protect scholarly freedom by steering classified research toward a nearby lab that isn’t on campus. At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, for instance, classified research is conducted at its affiliated Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), which is run by a nonprofit arm of the university. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, the affiliated Lincoln Laboratory, located northwest of Boston, is run through a contract with the U.S. Air Force. On the other side of the country, University of California scientists work at the federal Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, which are managed in part by the university. The new Wisconsin facility is owned by the security consortium and isn’t part of the university.

Even in those cases, tensions can emerge. In the fall of 2013, Johns Hopkins made headlines when an administrator told a computer science professor, Matthew Green, to take down a blog post about NSA out of concerns that it linked to classified information. That reportedly happened after a complaint from someone at APL. Within hours, the university backtracked and Andrew Douglas, then the interim dean of the Whiting School of Engineering, sent the professor an apology. A university task force on academic freedom, created in the incident’s wake, is in the final stages of preparing recommendations for Johns Hopkins’s president and provost.

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