(Updated 7:28 p.m.) After an outcry from campus groups and New Haven immigration activists, Yale announced Thursday night that it will put on temporary hold plans to launch a Department of Defense-backed research center that would rely on local immigrants as military test subjects.
Yale School of Medicine Dean Robert J. Alpern released the following statement:
“Members of the Yale and New Haven communities have raised concerns about a possible center for operational neuroscience that was reported in the press. In light of the issues raised, we are not moving forward on any such center until we have fully investigated all these issues.
“It is a very important value of both the Yale School of Medicine and the broader University that all research participants, including all members of the New Haven community, are given the highest respect and protected from any unethical treatment.”
Following is an earlier version of this article:
Immigration Activists To Yale: “We’re Not Lab Rats”
An immigrants rights activist blasted Yale’s incoming president for “callous indifferen[ce] to some of the city’s most vulnerable residents” as opposition mounted to a planned research center that would rely on local immigrants as military test subjects.
The hubbub centers on a planned $1.8 million “Center of Excellence for Operational Neurological Science” to be set up at Yale’s medical school in partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense.
The center doesn’t exist yet. Yale Psychiatry Professor Charles Morgan, who has worked with the military in the past, is working with the defense department on a grant to launch the center.
And what the center will do is also unclear. Morgan and Yale officials have depicted it as a do-gooder project: Designed to help our troops figure out how to communicate better with foreigners during operations abroad, through respectful conversation.
Opposition has already flared up both on campus and among New Haven’s immigrant rights activists. Organizers plan to starting conducting protest actions over the next week.
An online petition had collected 550 signatures as of Thursday afternoon. It reads: “Yale University should not partner with the Department of Defense to open a training center that uses New Haven’s immigrant community as test subjects. With no input from the community it represents, the administration has committed itself to training special forces in intelligence gathering techniques. This goes against the values of the global community it professes to uphold. Moreover, it defeats the purpose of a liberal arts education: the free and public exchange of ideas and knowledge.”
The New Haven opposition stemmed from Morgan’s plan to pay local immigrants to serve as test subjects. Critics said they fear the goal is to use “vulnerable” people of color to figure out how to better carry out interrogations and special-ops against people in the Third World. Groups like Junta for Progressive Action and Unidad Latina en Acción (ULA) are leading efforts to organize opposition alongside campus student and faculty groups.
“New Haven has a proud history of supporting its immigrant population. We’ve worked hard to create a thriving community where immigrants are respected,” said Kica Matos (pictured) of Fair Haven, a longtime local immigrant rights organizer and now the director of immigrant rights & racial justice for the national Center for Community Change.
“The center’s intention to experiment on New Haven’s immigrant communities of color is ethically and morally repulsive, and it flies in the face of everything that this city stands for.”
“We’re not lab rats,” remarked John Jairo Lugo, a ULA organizer born in Colombia. “The information that they are going to collect from the immigrant community is going to be used to train the army of this country. Why are we training the army of this country? For the next invasion. That can be Latin America. That can Africa. That can be Asia.”
The enterprise, he argued, is “bad for Latinos in general.”
A leader of New Haven’s Ecuadorean community, Dixon Jiminez, said he wants to learn more about a plan that he fears has “racist tinges.”
“There has not been a previous conversation with the immigrant community about how this could affect us,” Jiminez said. “It seems pretty obvious to me to think that Yale University, with principles of freedom, equality and justice, should not devote itself to opening a center that uses the immigrant community like test subjects and guinea pigs.”
How To Tell When Colombians Are Lying
Morgan (at center in photo) is not new to the practice of enlisting New Haven immigrants for government-sponsored research.
Last week, for instance, a Colombian-born New Haven journalist named Hernando Diosa was paid $150 to participate in an hour-long research study overseen by Morgan.
Diosa said he had heard from a friend that the researchers “were trying to get Colombians—only Colombians—to do the study.” When he arrived he was given papers to read and sign. One of the papers described the study as seeking to determine the “efficacy of interviewing to detect lies about beliefs.” It identified Morgan as the person in charge of the study, and the FBI as the study’s sponsor.
At first Diosa was asked to answer orally a set of questions about his beliefs. Next he was asked to write down his answers. Then he was asked to lie about his beliefs as he was observed.
Morgan’s bio on the School of Medicine website cites his ties to government-sponsored military research, including research involving special operations: “His work has provided insight into the psycho-neurobiology of resilience in elite soldiers and has contributed to the training mission of Army special programs. For his work in the special operations community Dr. Morgan was awarded the US Army Award for Patriotic Service in 2008. In 2010 Dr. Morgan was awarded the Sir Henry Welcome Medal and Prize for his research on enhancing cognitive performance under stress in special operations personnel. in 2011 Dr. Morgan deployed to Afghanistan as an operational advisor with the Asymmetric Warfare Group.”
Reached by phone Thursday, Morgan said he is not authorized to discuss either that study or the new center with the media.
“I’m supposed to refer all questions Yale,” he said. “You really have to talk to the provost. They approve all interviews now. When they tell me I can talk to you, I’d be happy to talk to you.
“We’re not doing any interviews right now while they try to get their head around how those rumors went around the web.”
The provost’s office referred an inquiry to Yale’s public relations office, where no one was available at press time to answer questions. Click here for a synopsis of how Morgan and Yale have been describing the center.
Old Quandary Raised Anew
Opposition to Morgan’s proposed new center has begun attracting national attention.
And the fledgling controversy flies straight into several broader trends in New Haven, some recent, some going back more than a half-century.
The subject has resonated sometimes painfully in New Haven over the years—and raised tricky ethical questions.
Professor Stanley Milgram misled paid New Haven subjects for his famous 1960s-era Holocaust-inspired research experiments into why everyday people will obey illegitimate authority and participate in torture or other violence against people. Participants in his project, pressing buttons at the behest of a project leader, were led to believe they had acquiesced in inflicting increasingly painful electric shocks on poor “learners” (who turned out to be actors not actually getting shocked). The experience scarred some of the unwitting test subjects. By all accounts human knowledge had been advanced. The question that arose was: At what cost? Yale formed a review board to monitor use of human subjects more closely in the future.
The subject remained sensitive in town in the 1960s and early 1970s when Yale received record amounts of government and foundation dollars to test urban renewal and social program ideas on New Haven. Today, in the aftermath of the city’s economic decline, academic research is more a bedrock of the local economy than ever, a chunk of it relying on paid New Haven subjects. Many people applauded the introduction of programs like Head Start or legal aid or community health clinics; others questioned the razing of city neighborhoods to make way for middle-class apartment towers. Underlying the debate was whether New Haven has helped advance the cause of human knowledge or served as a guinea pigs for advancing Yale’s self-interest.
Meanwhile, Yale has sought to improve its ties with the military—overturning, for instance, a four-decade-old campus ban on ROTC. (Read about that here.)
And in recent years New Haven’s immigrant population has risen dramatically. Community organizing in New Haven, in concert with Yale campus groups, has led the city to embrace newcomers with an immigrant-friendly “Elm City Resident” card and a policy prohibiting police from inquiring into people’s immigration status in most cases.
Amid all that comes the proposed new center.
And a new Yale president.
That incoming Yale president, Peter Salovey (pictured), who takes office as New Haven’s top CEO on June 30, sent an email response Wednesday to a project critic to allay people’s fears. The email may have backfired.
He wrote it to political science professor Elisabeth Wood, who says she has in the past sat on Yale’s Human Subjects Committee, which monitors the use of human subjects in research experiments.
Here’s what Wood wrote to Salovey:
“In case you’re not aware of the rapidly emerging national media coverage on the center at the School of Medicine to train military intelligence operatives, I append below some of coverage.
“I am very concerned both about the center and the implications for our immigrant community, as well as perceptions about Yale researchers (with particular implications for faculty and students doing field research in challenging settings). I saw the Yale statement. It raises more questions than it answers. Has the Center been proposed? approved? One story claims that it should have opened in January but was delayed due to DoD funding issues, so the perception is certainly that approval is far along.”
In an extensive “Dear Libby” response, Salovey wrote that he “certainly understand[s]” Wood’s concerns—especially given what he called “not entirely accurate” reports by the campus media.
“To begin with, the center has not yet been established. It has been proposed by a faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry at Yale,” Salovey wrote.
“Furthermore, this proposal, if and when it is formalized, will undergo the same rigorous scrutiny to which any newly-proposed academic center would be subjected. This scrutiny will include evaluation of the academic merits of the center, its alignment with the University’s mission, as well as any ethical reviews that may be called for to ensure that the rights and welfare of participants are fully protected.
“Although we have not yet received a formal proposal, my current understanding is that the aims of the proposed center are to provide training in interviewing techniques and multicultural engagement and to conduct related research in social and cognitive neuroscience. The intention behind the center’s educational efforts would be to train military personnel, including medics, in the same positive, non-coercive interpersonal and interviewing skills that are routinely taught to medical students and residents in the Department of Psychiatry.
“The Department of Psychiatry believes that the proposed center would also enable Yale faculty to study the interview process itself, which is central to the discipline and practice of psychiatry. This research would be conducted in a manner consistent with all other research activities at Yale and in compliance with all applicable federal regulations and University policies and standards, with the expectation that research findings would be openly available and reported in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Of course, in accordance with University policy, the center will conduct no secret or classified research.
“If the center is approved, all protocols to engage volunteer interviewees in its programs would be subjected to ongoing, rigorous ethical review and oversight from Yale’s nationally-accredited Human Research Protection Program, which operates Yale’s Institutional Review Boards. More specifically, these protocols must include robust, culturally-sensitive measures to assure that the rights and wellbeing of participants from diverse backgrounds are protected at all times.
“The center, if approved, would be subject to ongoing oversight by the University and School of Medicine administration. It would also be guided by a scientific advisory board with external representation from academic institutions.
“I appreciate your concerns, in light of the way in which the center has been incompletely described in recent media reports. However, a more accurate description of the proposed center suggests that there may be educational and research benefits that we should explore. That said, I can assure you that we will continue to conduct this exploration with the utmost scrutiny and careful consideration.”
Salovey’s email response made the rounds in New Haven. Immigrant rights advocate Matos called it “disappointing.”
“It is disturbing that he would display such callousness and indifference to some of the city’s most vulnerable residents,” Matos said. “This community will not stand for this.”
Salovey failed to return a request for comment about the controversy.