Massachusetts Institute of Technology officials are investigating allegations that a federally supported laboratory at the school covered up evidence critical of the prospective U.S. missile defense system, the The New York Times reported Thursday.
The university is looking into a 1998 report that cleared military contractor TRW of falsifying missile sensor test data. The report was completed under the auspices of the Lincoln Laboratory, MIT's chief recipient of U.S. government funding, the Times reported.
"Potentially, this is the most serious fraud that we've seen at a great American university," said Theodore Postol, the MIT physicist who first made the allegations of impropriety almost two years ago.
The case follows the allegations of Nira Schwartz, a senior engineer at TRW in 1995 and 1996, who said the contractor had faked missile defense sensor test results for ground-based hit-to-kill technology. The Lincoln Laboratory oversaw a federally funded report that exonerated TRW but Postol has insisted that the conclusions of the Lincoln investigation are "false and unsupported."
In early 2002, Postol faulted MIT for not following up on his complaints and ignoring a possible case of "serious scientific fraud."
Edward Crawley, head of the university's Aeronautics and Astronautics Department, initially said an investigation into the Lincoln Laboratory report was unnecessary, but in November he decided to support an inquiry and late last month Crawley recommended a full investigation.
"The bedrock principle for all research done at MIT is scientific integrity," said a statement from officials at the school. "Any allegation that there has been any deviation from that principle must be taken seriously, and that is what MIT has done in this case," the statement added.
Postol's case was supported by a February 2002 General Accounting Office study that called the TRW test results "highly misleading." The GAO report also said the Lincoln report relied on data processed by TRW, but investigators did not look into raw data from the tests, the Times reported.
"Either there's a serious problem with the GAO report, which needs to be corrected," Postol told Crawley in August, "or Lincoln Laboratory could be involved at the highest levels of management in covering up fraud," he added.
Critics have faulted Postol for his attention to the TRW situation because the contractor lost a competition for the contract to Raytheon in December 1998. The case is important because it is a rare opportunity to look at the missile defense system's feasibility, he said.
"It's absolutely relevant," Postol said. "It goes to the heart of whether this system has any chance of working. It's more relevant now than when the case first arose," he added.
MIT officials would not comment specifically on the inquiry into Lincoln Laboratory, citing confidentiality policies.