Why I will no longer do research sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security

By February 22, 2017machinelearning

Shortly after the inauguration, the new administration announced a blanket ban on  refugees and any entry into the US from 7 proscribed countries. The announcement was met with outrage, ridicule, and legal opposition. Despite its obvious unconstitutionality and complete lack of guidance on implementation, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) engaged in a weekend of harassment and intimidation at our border. They were big cheerleaders of the effort but also incompetent and unprofessional. At the same time, a pilot project I had worked on, funded by DHS, was about to be submitted for a “phase 2” extension. In light of those events, I asked to be taken off the project entirely and will no longer seek funding from DHS.

Now the administration has revealed an harsh and chilling new plan to terrorize immigrants and their families through a campaign of demonization and deportation. The biggest cheerleader of this plan is the new DHS secretary, John F. Kelly. This only validates my decision: I cannot conduct research under the aegis of an agency whose planned actions run counter to nearly everything I believe. It would be unethical for me to continue to do so. If that were not enough, DHS has also ceded its technical authority on security/privacy issues. I have little confidence that real security/privacy is a priority.

Supporting graduate students in engineering often requires getting funds from multiple sources; it is difficult to sustain a research group (and in some places, get tenure) on NSF (or NIH, in my field at least) funding alone. The usual suspects are industry, foundations, the various defense research programs (ARO, ONR, AFOSR, DARPA), or other government departments (DOE comes to mind). If you work in security/privacy, DHS has also been a (relatively) new source of research funding. Many of the other government agencies do fund basic research but some are focused more on applied research or transitioning research to practice.

There are many considerations to balance. As a theory and algorithms person, the overhead of making “deliverables” can take time away from basic research. Some programs have a lot of check-ins and progress updates which don’t necessarily work with the academic calendar. Finally, trying to describe your theory question about graph topology and its impact on convergence rates of some estimator as crucial to improving “warfighter capabilities” can sometimes feel awkward. My approach thus far has been to try things out. If the proposal is on research I would want to do anyway and everything is public domain and open, then OK. If the experience is not so good/fun, maybe I will consider alternatives. Basic research has lots of applications; improving a control algorithm could yield better drone targeting or more accurate laser-aided surgery.

It was with this in mind that I proceeded with a DHS-funded project on privacy-sensitive anomaly detection. It was a short project but raised a number of interesting new problems and models that I would like to explore, if possible, in the future. It also funded a student whose studies are now threatened by this very administration. Indeed, the entire academic research enterprise in the US is under threat. As academics we can sign petitions, but it is not enough. Scott Aaronson wrote very eloquently about this issue after the initial ban was announced (see also Terry Tao). My department has seen a dramatic decrease in the number of applicants in general and not just from Iran. We were just informed that we can no longer make TA offers for students who are unlikely to get a visa to come here.

The Department of Homeland Security has demonstrated its blatant disregard for moral norms. Why should we trust its scientific norms? What confidence do we have that funding will be used in some coercive way? What does it say to our students when we ask them to work for DHS? Yes, the government is big, but at some point the argument that it’s mostly the guy at the top who is bad but the rest of the agency is still committed to good science becomes just too hard to swallow. I decided that I can’t square that circle. Each one of us should think hard about whether we want to.

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