The head of the FBI's Boston office is warning the region's top universities to be on the lookout for foreign spies or potential terrorists who might be trying to steal unclassified, yet sensitive, research.

FBI agents met recently with officials at Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Massachusetts and other schools to train professors, students and security staff on how to recognize anyone who might be trying to exploit research, Special Agent in Charge Warren Bamford said.

More visits are scheduled as part of a larger nationwide program, he said.

Bamford stressed that the FBI is not seeking to censor information or stop the free flow of information, just raise awareness.

"The academic community is designed to be open, and we just have to make the community aware," he said.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute President Dennis Berkey said the FBI told researchers to protect laptops, especially in foreign countries, and to be wary about who contacts them about their work.

"The general point was, if there is unnatural or unexplained interest in your research and you're nervous about it, here's how to be in touch with us," Berkey said. He said WPI already takes precautions to protect research.

Boston College will probably follow some of the FBI's advice, spokesman Kevin Shea said.

"Boston College was very appreciative of their outreach," Shea said.

John Reinstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, expressed reservations about the program, warning that there could be a chilling effect on students or researchers.

"Are you going to ask all the questions you want to ask if someone is out there taking notes and reporting to the FBI that you asked the question which they perceived as suspicious?" Reinstein said.