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Microsoft's East Coast alliance

Company grant powers MIT's iCampus projects

Microsoft Research hasn't located any of its cutting-edge labs in the Boston area. But when Rick Rashid spent a couple of days here last week, he was visiting the closest thing to a Microsoft lab on the East Coast: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Rashid, senior vice president for research at Microsoft Corp. in Redmond, Wash., dropped in at MIT's iCampus program, funded with a $25 million grant from Microsoft. The grant underwrites dozens of faculty- and student-run research projects, from designing robots on Microsoft-powered Tablet computers to controlling engineering lab equipment remotely with the company's Web services applications.

ICampus is Microsoft's largest single engagement with a research university and one of the most ambitious corporate investments in academic research anywhere.

''It was a confluence of their [MIT's] interests and our interests," Rashid said in an interview last week.

But the five-year program, and similar ones sponsored by Microsoft and other corporations, have drawn criticism from some who worry that business interests are encroaching on the academic world.

''The commercial culture has been intruding on academia and eroding its mission," said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, a public interest group. ''In order for a university to maintain its integrity, it can't be a service appendage of a corporation."

Officials at Microsoft and MIT describe the program as an alliance between the company and the university. MIT deploys Microsoft's information technology tools, and its money, to redesign how it teaches physics, computer science, and aeronautical engineering. A full-time representative of the Microsoft Research division is based in Cambridge and collaborates with university researchers on software applications, enabling remote classrooms, recorded lectures, and other technologies that can be shared with universities across the country or abroad. Although the company has the option of applying to license the technology, Rashid denied that it is the program's purpose.

''We're not trying to make a business out of this," he said. ''We're trying to work with universities more productively."

MIT's iCampus director Hal Abelson, a computer science professor, said the program has enabled the institute to ''make our engineering resources available around the world" through links to students at universities in Singapore, Sweden, and the United Kingdom -- some of whom have used computer controls to do experiments on MIT's laboratory equipment.

In another initiative at MIT, professors have replaced the traditional lecture with an innovative teaching model in which shorter talks are accompanied by students doing interactive simulation experiments. ''It looks like a whole bunch of seven-person groups rather than a large amphitheater full of students," Abelson said.

The iCampus directors have allocated about $1.2 million over the past three years to student-proposed projects. In one, students are working to outfit boats with global positioning systems so they can be tracked on laptops during the Head of the Charles regatta next fall.

Rashid, a former computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said Microsoft devotes about 15 percent of its basic research budget to working with universities. It has separate programs with Carnegie Mellon, Stanford University, Cornell University, and other schools. Microsoft also sponsors about 25 graduate student fellowships, and last summer hosted 175 PhD candidates as interns at its Redmond research labs, which employ about 700 full-time researchers.

The labs have been founts of research for technologies, ranging from digital media players to Tablet computers to ''smart" wrist watches, that eventually become Microsoft products. Rashid said his research teams now are working on storage, search, and graphics technologies, and on software analysis programming tools that will represent the next generation of technology advances.

''My job is to make sure that Microsoft is still around in 10 years," he said.

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.

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