Why MIT Proposals are NOT Confidential Information

MIT does not treat its proposals to sponsors as confidential information. Most proposals do not teach MIT’s knowledge or technology in sufficient detail to enable a sponsor (who presumably has decided to sponsor research at MIT because its scientists don’t have access to MIT’s expertise and facilities) to appropriate MIT’s proposal and conduct the research itself. 

Reviewing the usual contents of an MIT proposal’s Statement of Work (SoW):

  1. the overview of the science underlying proposed work is information that has already been published in most cases (and is sometimes supported by a bibliography in some proposals)
  2. the work plan, while of varying degree of detail, usually doesn’t teach how to do the planned research, but only outlines the plan, expected milestones and deliverables.
  3. the budget is MIT-specific—the sponsor won’t be employing students, using MIT facilities, or paying MIT rates and overhead.

It's unlikely that a sponsor would spend time and effort to cultivate a relationship with MIT’s research team—especially the PI—and then try to implement MIT's proposal on its own without MIT’s collaboration. Such behavior could damage the willingness of other MIT researchers to collaborate with that sponsor, once the word of such behavior spread around MIT.

Furthermore, simply marking information as “MIT Confidential” does not mean that MIT’s sponsors are obligated to protect it. The sponsor and MIT first have to execute a non-disclosure agreement if MIT wants to protect MIT information as confidential. Then, as soon as MIT discloses the same or very similar information to another outside organization without a confidentiality agreement (whether a sponsor or not), that information would no longer be confidential as we had disclosed it without an obligation of confidentiality. MIT prefers not to expend contracting effort to protect MIT proposals with confidentiality agreements when we may propose something similar to other sponsors if the first sponsor declines the proposal, and when much of the proposal’s technical background may have been previously published.

Last, MIT research is fundamental academic research under US export regulations, such that the results generated by MIT qualify as “public domain” under ITAR Parts 120.10(a)(5) and 120.11 or “publicly available under EAR Parts 734.3(b)(3) and 734.8(a, b).  To be considered fundamental academic research, results must be published within a reasonably short period of time (typically 1-3 months after submitting a paper), except for patent filings, which must be kept confidential until they are published by the US Patent and Trademark Office.  Keeping MIT research plans and results confidential could violate the fundamental research exclusion, rendering some MIT research subject to export license requirements and forcing MIT to exclude some foreign students and researchers from participating in the research, in contradiction of MIT Policy.

For the same reasons, we will not allow our sponsors to mark MIT’s proposals as “confidential.”  First, MIT prepares the proposals, so they are OUR information, not the sponsor’s.  As noted above, MIT asserts our proposals are not confidential information.  Furthermore, each proposal’s statement of work and some of its budget information become an integral part of the award contract.  MIT cannot treat award contracts as confidential information because:

  1. proposals and  award contracts are stored in open files and online databases at MIT that are accessed by many MIT employees. 
  2. they need to be reviewed and implemented by many MIT employees who might be unaware of a confidentiality agreement that might govern one particular proposal
  3. PIs need to be able to disclose the names of award projects and their sponsors (and sometimes the award funding), in federal and foundation grant applications and sometimes in proposals to other sponsors.

Last, while occasional for-profit sponsors may ask MIT to keep the research we’re doing under their sponsorship confidential, we explain to them that this is not possible in a tax-exempt university that is obligated to publish its research to serve the public good.

Unfiled MIT inventions shouldn’t be disclosed in proposals

The only MIT confidential information-- that PIs should avoid putting into proposals—is information teaching novel inventions that have not yet been (a) disclosed to TLO and (b) the subject of a filed US patent application.  Disclosing an unfiled invention to a third parties without a confidentiality agreement risks destroying the patentability of the invention.  TLO provides guidance on how to disclose and protect inventions.