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Yale professors find deep pockets in Defense Dept.


When the Department of Defense (DOD) advertised that it was looking for a way to make soldiers' battery packs more efficient, a light bulb went off in the head of Yale Professor of Mechanical Engineering Alessandro Gomez: micro-combustion. The result was a $3 million grant from the government to explore the idea.
Professor Alessandro Gomez's bright idea for a better battery earned him $3 million from the DOD.

Professor Gomez is not alone in accepting federal funding for academic research. Yale is estimated to have received over $6 million in grants from the DOD in the past year alone. In the previous year, it collected $1.2 million from the Navy, $1.2 million from the Air Force, and $3.3 million from the Army.

Why does Yale—a liberal institution that prides itself on independent thought—accept such massive amounts of funding from the military branch of the government? And as the U.S. braces for war in Afghanistan, has an unresolved Yale community already given its tacit consent to a collaboration between academia and the military?

"Yale does not accept classified research, Director of Yale's Grant and Contract Administration Suzanne Polmer said. "Therefore, grants received from the DOD are just like awards from the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health with respect to their terms and conditions." Gomez expressed similar certainty about the integrity of accepting government money. He explained that a DOD grant "doesn't come with strings attached."

A fellow professor who is assisting Gomez with his government-sponsored project, added that it is not as though "you're whispering in a general's ear." University President Richard Levin, GRD '74, added that "None of [Yale's DOD funded research] is classified; it's all open research."

Yet the question remains why it would benefit Yale, the institution and its faculty, to pursue projects sponsored by the Defense Department. Although Gomez admitted that his project has a specific military purpose, he asserted that it will eventually affect more than a soldier's power supply. He predicted that his findings will have civilian applications, such as a lighter and more efficient battery. He said, "The challenge is to weave in enough engineering science of interest to the entire combustion community and not just to the end users of the product. We are confident we can do that."

For other professors and researchers at Yale who procure generous DOD grants, government funding offers similar benefits. For example, Yale researchers received a $1.2 million grant to assist the DOD in evaluating how certain information technology systems can improve health care. Director of the grant Jennifer Matera explained that the project presents Yale with the chance to apply "academic medicine to the real world" and be a pioneer in an area where there is "very little work being done." She pointed out that the military healthcare system covers 8.2 million lives; therefore, by working with the government, she and her team are affecting a "captive audience."

Some professors and researchers are even able to obtain DOD grants for several years worth of projects. Matera has been overseeing DOD contracts at Yale for a number of years because they have "been in sequence." Gomez concurs that a government grant is a "very sustainable source of funding" and that many professors and researchers have had enjoyed support for decades. Referring to this fortunate group as "the club," he said there is a measure of security that goes along with being a part of a group that receives continuous government monies.

Yale is not the only school that obtains substantial funding from the DOD. Colleges across the country accept comparable funds. In fact, the DOD is the third-largest sponsor of research at U.S. colleges and universities. The department directs most of its funding, which totals more than $1 billion every year, towards basic research in subject areas such as engineering, computer sciences, mathematics, and oceanography. Yet an estimated 25 percent of the department's support for research in colleges and universities is for applied research. In a list of the DOD's "100 Top Defense Contractors for 1999," two universities joined the ranks of Boeing and General Electric. MIT ranked 27th, while Johns Hopkins followed at 28th. Furthermore, the DOD gives money to enhance science, math, and engineering training for minorities. Just recently, the department granted $4.7 million in grants to the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities to bolster such departments.

When questioned about the importance of DOD grants to American universities, Gomez pointed to one example of the technological advancements that have been made possible by federal funding: the Internet, which was designed by the government in the 1960s. Although too modest to predict that his project will have such an impact on the world, Gomez thinks his research will affect computer technology as well. His work on micro-combustion will not only give soldiers more freedom with more efficient power supplies, but Yalies also with new, longer-lasting laptops.

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