Federal funds for scientific research and facilities should be awarded to research universities primarily on the basis of merit, the president of MIT said in his annual report released today (Oct. 21.)
"Although we must recognize legitimate concerns such as geographic distribution," said Dr. Charles M. Vest, "it is not in the interest of the country to cut off the tops of its mountains to fill in the valleys."
"We and our colleagues must continue to press for federal support of the full cost of programs, and to press for merit as the prime determinant of grants, contracts, and facility funding," Dr. Vest said.
He added: "Surely the wisest policy for the country cannot be random selection for awards, based on the location of schools in particular congressional districts, and funded with monies removed from the already stressed resources of programs and agencies.
"The great public and private institutions must be maintained. They are magnets for the best thinkers and researchers, and their facilities and graduate schools are the peaks of excellence to which students from schools and colleges all over the country aspire and matriculate.
"The set of these institutions is dynamic, with new universities moving into the ranks the old-fashioned way-by hard work and good ideas."
Dr. Vest said proper allocation of government support is especially important at a time when America's research universities are faced with "fiscal constraint and social uncertainty."
"We are experiencing a deep sense of frustration because never in our history has the field of intellectual challenge and opportunity or the need for our services to the nation and the world been so great," he said. "Yet never in recent decades have we experienced such fiscal constraint or sensed such a fall from grace with the public and the government.""We are not in crisis," he said, "but we are in a precarious state, one that may be more difficult to grasp and respond to than crisis."
Dr. Vest listed some of the challenges and opportunities facing the nation's research universities. He said they must:
Lead the revolution in molecular biology and advance the promise of biotechnology; come to understand the workings of the human brain and the nature of intelligence; bring the highest quality of minds to assessing and ameliorating humankind's effects on the earth's environment; secure the advances of computers and communications technology in the information marketplace for the social good; better understand organizations and businesses and how to make them more effective in building vital and sustainable economies; combine the aesthetic and technical in the design of the physical environment and in the creation of more livable cities; and renew the liberal, visual and performing arts that in such large measure define what it is to be human.
Universities must do all this, Dr. Vest said, while facing declining rates of revenue increases and a general decline in the climate for support of higher education.
"New tasks, new roles and new responsibilities-but no new corresponding revenues-have become a familiar situation in academe," he said.
As one example, he noted that the operating revenue of private, doctoral-granting institutions has grown from roughly $12 billion to $23 billion in constant dollars in the last 20 years. The most dramatic change in the source of these funds, he said, is that the federal government supplied nearly 30 percent 20 years ago, but only about 18 percent today.
He said that MIT, while in a stronger financial position than many universities, nevertheless has had modest budget deficits the past three years and faces increasing deficits in future years unless action is taken.
He said that forces on the MIT budget-currently at about $1.1 billion-"have reached a critical point, one that requires concerted Institute-wide action if we are to remain excellent and rebuild some flexibility to do the things that we believe to be important."
He said MIT would seek to bring its budget into balance through increased revenues and reduced costs, always remembering "our mission is not a financial one" but "one of teaching, research and service."
A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 1992 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 37, Number 10).