Academic freedom at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology faces a bigger threat from the growth of corporate power in the United States than from the military, Noam Chomsky told academics in New Zealand last week.
Presenting the Association of University Staff's inaugural academic freedom awards, Professor Chomsky said MIT, where he researches the nature of language and communication, was the most militarised university in the world outside the military academies - roughly 95 per cent of its funding came directly or indirectly from the Pentagon in the 1960s.
Yet military-funded research was in general free and unconstrained basic research with long-term goals. "There are no constraints and in fact the subversive function with respect to science and technology is rewarded," he said.
During the Vietnam War, for example, MIT had been a centre of resistance but there was "never a problem". But Professor Chomsky said the shift from military to corporate funding of research had led to greater secrecy. "A pharmaceutical company, for example, is not going to fund basic research in biology that will have an uncertain pay-off at an unknown time and be available to everybody."
He said companies wanted to fund short-term applied research they could control, including the publication of results - or non-publication if they did not like the findings.
Companies could not enforce confidentiality by law but they used the threat of loss of contracts to exercise control.
The attack on academic freedom from the corporate sector through the funding of professorships, grants and awards was just the surface of a broader offensive to restrict what went on in universities, said Professor Chomsky. Yet universities were supposed to be subversive, pressing the boundaries of knowledge and understanding, and inspiring students to question and challenge.
But although freedom of speech was protected by law in the United States, unlike most countries, there were subtle and increasing pressures under which the range of discussion was narrowed, and some questions essential for understanding the nature of society did not get asked or studied.