Three nationally known physicists are questioning the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's handling of allegations of fraud at Lincoln Laboratory, saying that MIT appears to be ceding its authority to the Pentagon.
The three physicists, all security specialists from outside MIT, wrote to president Susan Hockfield expressing skepticism about the university's stance that it cannot investigate MIT professor Theodore Postol's allegations on missile defense research because the Defense Department has refused MIT access to all the relevant materials.
The letter is a sign that prominent members of the national scientific community are closely watching how Hockfield, who became president in December, will handle a protracted dispute that reached a stalemate under her predecessor, Charles M. Vest.
MIT's response to Postol's allegations has been overseen by provost Robert A. Brown, who soon will be leaving MIT to become president of Boston University.
The government's ''position that MIT has no need to know whether fraud is occurring in the research that it manages for the federal government is unacceptable and flies in the face of one of the fundamental rationales for having universities manage such research," the scientists wrote. ''We believe that MIT's position should simply be that it will not manage research whose integrity it is not allowed to verify."
The authors were Frank N. von Hippel, the codirector of Princeton University's Program on Science and Global Security who served as assistant director for national security in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under President Clinton; Richard L. Garwin, a nuclear expert who has advised the government on numerous occasions; and John Ahearne, former chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Ahearne chairs a national security panel at the University of California, which reviews the nuclear weapons laboratories at Los Alamos and Livermore.
Their May 31 letter was provided to the Globe by Postol.
In her June 14 reply, Hockfield wrote: ''I share your concern that a compete investigation of Professor Postol's allegations be allowed to proceed. I can assure you that MIT has consistently pursued, and continues to seek, an investigation of these allegations, including review of both the relevant classified and unclassified record."
The controversy dates to 1997, when the Pentagon conducted what it said was a successful test of an infrared missile sensor over the Pacific Ocean. A team including Lincoln Lab scientists later evaluated the results and deemed them ''basically sound."
But Postol, known for work exposing problems with the Army's claims about the Patriot missile during the Persian Gulf War, did an analysis and concluded the tests were so flawed that the Lincoln Lab scientists could not have believed the data they evaluated were valid. Government reports later said important elements of the test failed, but they did not address Postol's allegations.
In early 2003, MIT concluded that a full investigation of Postol's allegations was warranted. But then the Missile Defense Agency classified all the information relating to the allegations -- including MIT's own initial inquiry -- and refused to grant ''need to know" status to MIT investigators, even those with the appropriate security clearance.
Shortly before he left office, Vest said that the investigation could not go forward.
But the three outside physicists wrote that they were ''nonplussed" by MIT's attitude, since ''MIT appears to have accepted MDA's edict as legitimate."
In an interview, von Hippel suggested that MIT lobby members of relevant congressional committees to pressure the Pentagon to change its mind.
''Of course, MIT can't do that without the risk of retaliation," he said. ''The MDA can say 'thank you very much, we're going to take our business elsewhere.' An institution has to be willing to pay at some point if its fundamental values are being challenged."
Von Hippel said MIT has a larger obligation to vigorously fight the Pentagon's decision. ''It really threatens not just MIT, because the way MIT goes in some sense will be seen as a major precedent for the relationships between government and academia," he said.
The scientists wrote that the University of California requires that Ahearne's committee be allowed to review all work done at Los Alamos and Livermore.
''I would have been appalled if the university were told, 'The laboratories are doing this work, but you can't find out about it,' " Ahearne said in an interview.
Separately, the American Physical Society's Committee on the International Freedom of Scientists wrote to Hockfield recently, asking her to respond to Postol's allegations of retaliation against him at MIT. Hockfield responded that MIT does not tolerate retaliation, and asked the group to be more specific about Postol's charges.
Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at email@example.com.