This section and those that follow were written by Paul Green, a research professor at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, and reflect his impression of University policy, the Freedom of Information Act, nondisclosure agreements, and University contracts. The official University views can be obtained from the project representatives ("the lawyers") in the University's Research Administration Office.
UMTRI is part of the University, and therefore we need to comply with University policies, for contracts and nondisclosure agreements. Those policies are established by the Regents of the University, officials elected by the voters of the State of Michigan to govern the University and oversee the 1 billion dollars it receives each year in research income. As elected officials, their views are a reflection of the public will. Their policies are intended to foster the missions of the University, in particular, (1) to create, disseminate, and apply knowledge in a manner consistent with the principles of open scholarly exchange and academic freedom, and (2) to educate students (http://www.umich.edu/pres/mission.php). These missions are common to all universities.
To accomplish these missions, the regents established 7 governing policies concerning research agreements whose wording is unchanged since 1987 (http://www.drda.umich.edu/policies/um/regents_policy.html). The 5 most important are repeated here verbatim.
- The University will not enter into or renew any grant, contract, or agreement
that would restrain its freedom to disclose the existence of the document, the
identity of any sponsor of the proposed research, or the purpose and scope of the
- The University normally does not accept grants, contracts, or agreements for
research, which unreasonably restrict its faculty, staff, or students from publishing
or otherwise disseminating the results of the research.
- The University will accept a classified research grant, contract or agreement if
it can be accommodated without compromising the University's pursuit of its
educational mission and if its purpose is clearly in the public interest.
- Nothing in these provisions shall prohibit grants, contracts, or agreements that
restrict publication or other public dissemination of classified or proprietary
information supplied to the investigator by the sponsor, as distinguished from
information generated in the course of research performed by members of the University community.
- Where the sponsor supplies classified or proprietary information to the investigator, the grant, contract, or agreement may include reasonable provisions for submission of manuscripts arising from the sponsored research to the sponsor for review prior to publication or other public dissemination so that the sponsor may verify that no such classified or proprietary information is disclosed.
- we cannot make secret agreements.
- with rare exceptions, we reserve the right to publish eventually.
- in some circumstances, we can do classified research.
- we will keep sponsor provided confidential information confidential.
Public organizations such as state universities must be transparent. Therefore, the names of sponsors and the purpose of projects can be obtained from the University, and typically by filing a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request described later. Also, a copy of the contract, nondisclosure agreement, and other matters of public record can be obtained as well.
The University’s role is to advance knowledge, and knowledge that is suppressed (not published) is considered not to contribute to advancement.
The first request prospective sponsors often make is for information on prior research, in particular, publications. If there are not publications from prior research, the chances of future work are substantially reduced.
Second, university faculty are evaluated for salary increases, promotion, and tenure based on the number of publications written each year. For junior faculty, tenure is a huge concern, with about half of all faculty not receiving tenure, and therefore, they are let go. Most commonly, this is because of their publication record.
Third, in companies, departments and units are evaluated based on their contribution to the financial health and productivity of the company. Those units that are not contributing are closed. In a university, the primary measure of productivity is the number of publications, and units with low publication output can be closed and their employees dismissed.
Fourth, students working on research projects will eventually move on to permanent employment. They know that certain confidential aspects of projects are not to be discussed. However, if they are forbidden from saying anything indefinitely, in particular in job interviews, then their job prospects are sharply reduced and they not want to work at UMTRI. This reduces the pool of potential UMTRI employees, decreasing the quality of the workforce on projects and increasing costs to the sponsor.
Finally, to maintain its status as a tax-exempt organization, the University cannot be constrained in what it publishes.
Thus, if we do not publish, we will not bring in future projects, our pay will suffer, we may lose our jobs, our organization may be disestablished, we will not be able to hire the best students, and the University could lose its tax exempt status.
However, we fully realize that sponsors do not want to lose their competitive advantage from sponsoring research at the University. In the Driver Interface Group, this is accomplished by waiting until a product is released, assuming that occurs in a timely manner. If anything, this is helpful to the sponsor because the publication shows the diligence exercised to assure a product is safe and easy to use.
Further, sponsors should keep in mind that what we have a right to do and what we actually do can be different. For some topics, the research conducted may not be publication worthy, for example in the case of routine testing.
Typically, the University is willing to forgo initiating the publication process until approximately 6 months after a project is completed, though the time frame could be longer to allow for a product to be released. In most cases, this time frame should be adequate for the sponsor to obtain its competitive advantage and is consistent with the practice of most universities.
As a practical matter, when we can publish and when a proceedings paper or journal might appear, if we have the time to produce one, are quite different. We will not start the internal process to create those publications until the project is done, and the time to create the publication might span a few months. In the case of a proceedings paper, the proposal is usually submitted 9 months before the meeting, and it is only published if it is accepted (50% probability). In the case of a journal article, the time between submission and acceptance is about 6 months (with an acceptance probability of 25%). If it is accepted, then another 6 months elapses before the article appears in print.
We do not seek out to inform competitors of a sponsor's research, so considerable time can elapse between when a publication is released and a competitor learns of that publication. Quite frankly, we have found that most often the sponsor is the primary benefactor of publications because it reflects favorably on their interests and provides a concise summary of a project for internal distribution.
The University rarely does classified research, traditionally secret military research, because publishing that research is prohibited. The strongest argument for an exception is national security and where the University has a particular capability that is not available elsewhere.
By design, universities are open organizations that encourage the free flow of information. Public access is unrestricted for most buildings, though laboratories are usually locked, in particular the simulator lab at UMTRI and many concerned with medical research, where National Institutes of Health requirements are in force. Because of UMTRI’s location, moderate size, and work climate, people who do not belong in the building are obvious.
However, for the campus at large, there are no campus entrance guards and a visitor's pass is not required. Students, who come from all over the world, leave every few years. For those and other reasons, secret military research and classified industrial research, both requiring the same security constraints, are rarely conducted on university campuses. In general, if an organization wants to keep something totally secret indefinitely, they should not be working with a university.
When classified research is to be done, there needs to be a very compelling argument for it. Sponsors should keep in mind that obtaining an exemption to perform classified research is expensive and time consuming, requires informing and obtaining permission from a large number of university officials (who need to be told what the work is) and sometimes leads to a higher overhead rate, making the research more costly. Obtaining permission is not assured.
From time to time, we test product concepts. As part of that process, sponsors will provide us with materials that might be considered trade secrets—product plans and specifications, device drawings, source code, and so forth. The Freedom of Information Acts, described later, recognizes that trade secrets need special protection. Generally, when we publish, we will identify the make and model of what we tested, and show pictures of the driver interface. However, the details that are of the greatest concern to the sponsor, for example the wiring diagram for a device, we are not going to publish, and in fact, we rarely receive. Furthermore, proprietary test equipment is returned the sponsor after the project is completed. To assure confidential materials are properly handled, they should be labeled as such when provided to UMTRI.
Confidential materials may be in computers or paper form. Most of the driver interface computers are password protected Macs, which are more secure than Windows computers. They are connected to a local area network whose security is maintained by the University. The only individuals with accounts for that network are those working in the Driver Interface Group, and we assigned the passwords. The University and UMTRI IT people do not have access to this network. Furthermore, logons are computer specific, requiring a particular MAC address, so just having user ID and password is not sufficient to log on to the network.
For paper records, they are most likely to be in Paul Green’s office. Although he knows how the papers on the floor of his office are sorted, to others the scheme appears random. Thus, for others, finding desired materials will be a challenge. Think of this as a security feature.