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MIT Urges NSF to Take 'Longest View' of Science

How should American science serve the nation and the world in the 21st century?

This is the question being debated, with a Nov. 20 deadline, by the Special Commission on the Future of the National Science Foundation (NSF). MIT and more than 500 other individuals and institutions sumbitted comments on the topic to the agency last month.The National Science Foundation, in the view of MIT, "should be the agency with the broadest and longest view of science and technology in the national interest.

"Its first responsibility should be to see to the health of basic research, research that is inspired by intellectual opportunity and the quest for fundamental understanding, and not necessarily by predetermined practical objectives," MIT said in a position paper submitted to William H. Danforth, co-chair of the Special Commission and chancellor of Washington University (St. Louis).

"This should be accomplished primarily by supporting research and graduate education," MIT said.

"It should be emphasized that it is the entire system of government, industrial, and academic components that is in need of attention, and we believe that the NSF review should be conducted in this context," said the paper signed by President Charles M. Vest, Provost Mark S. Wrighton, Associate Provost Sheila E. Widnall, Vice President for Research J. David Litster, Dean of Engineering Joel Moses and Dean of Science Robert J. Birgeneau.

In the statement, MIT said that the support of science and technology should be determined at the grass roots through the individual initiative of scientists in universities and industry, not through bureaucratic direction.

"The NSF must rededicate itself to supporting the best ideas and people, wherever they are found, rather than supporting only bureaucratically determined areas and activities." However, the statement said, the times do require some changes and new approaches.

The MIT report made these recommendations:

  • ������NSF should develop better means to couple frontier research to technological development.
  • NSF should create programs intended to fulfill industry's future personnel needs in science and engineering.
  • NSF should organize to support programs with the parallelism and disciplinary diversity to address global-scale issues such as environmental change and telecommunications.
  • ������NSF should establish ways of taking advantage of basic and applied knowledge generated elsewhere.
  • NSF should develop programs that support and encourage exchange of personnel between industry and academia to undertake cooperative research, both basic and applied.
  • NSF should continue support of education, primarily at the graduate level but also at the undergraduate and K-12 levels.
  • ������While stating that transfer of technology is most effective through "the training of skilled and well-educated students," MIT also recommended the "highly effective approach" of the MIT Technology Licensing Office in assisting in founding about 40 new companies since 1987 and in making about 50 licensing agreements per year.

On a related point, the MIT paper said, "The individuals involved need to be encouraged to develop genuine partnerships, and it is these people-not the NSF-who should select and drive the research areas. There may be merit in considering having industrial development personnel spend time on campuses, in addition to frontier industrial researchers. Such partnerships should serve the needs of both large corporations and small start-up companies."

MIT said a prototype endeavor might be the DARPA-supported Consortium for Superconducting Electronics, which involves AT&T, IBM, and a small company, Conductus, in a cooperative effort with MIT (including Lincoln Laboratory), Boston University, Cornell and SUNY Stony Brook.

In an accompanying letter to Dr. Danforth, the MIT leaders thanked the Special Commission members for reviewing the mission of NSF "at this time of great transition and transformation in our nation and world."

They said, "We believe that MIT has demonstrated how pure science can be pursued synergistically with applied science and engineering in an environment that fosters very close ties to industry. We have also been quite successful in interweaving education and research at all levels. It is our hope that our experiences as well as our suggestions for change will be helpful to the Commission."

A version of this article appeared in the November 4, 1992 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 37, Number 12).

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