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In report, President Vest calls for 'reasoned policy' for federal funding

MIT President Charles M. Vest has called for a "reasoned development of policy" governing federal funding of research to replace what he describes as a "cycle of Congressional attack" on research universities that forces them into "intensive defensive efforts."

"This is not a stable way to conduct federal policy," Dr. Vest said in his annual report to the community. "This is a time of both change and financial stress that calls for reasoned development of policy.

"In the process of fighting each of these difficult, defensive political battles," he added, "the universities have had to divert enormous time and effort from our primary mission of education and research."

Dr. Vest specifically referred to a House of Representatives appropriation bill that would have decreased Department of Defense support for research at universities to 40 percent of its current level. Because this is the primary source of federal support of engineering graduate education and research in the United States-representing 75 percent of all electrical engineering and about 50 percent in other critical fields such as mechanical engineering, computer science, and materials science and engineering-the potential damage was "imponderable," he said.

Only at the eleventh hour was the cut modified, he said, "but we were still left with a destructive 14 percent cut-a $200 million reduction in funding for DOD sponsored research on the nation's campuses.

Dr. Vest made the comments in the context of what he said was a changing environment for education and research in the wake of the Cold War era.

During the Cold War, he said, defense "became the dominant driver of high technology and provided an underlying rationale for the support of advanced education and research."

He said the benefits of this support extended far beyond national security considerations, through the building of new industries and national capabilities.

"This has now changed abruptly," Dr. Vest stated. "The cold peace that we have won has eroded this supportive climate, and left the compass of national policy spinning, rather than locked onto new directions that would unite, inspire and advance us."

The sense of partnership between government and universities "has decayed dramatically," he said.

"The past few years have seen a continuing attempt on the part of both Congress and the Administration to shift substantial portions of the cost of conducting university research away from the federal sponsors of that research," Dr. Vest said. "Rather than reimbursing universities for the full cost of the research conducted on our campuses, the government has expected universities to shoulder more of those costs."

This has forced MIT and other research universities to use tuition, gift and endowment revenues to cover unreimbursed costs of federally sponsored research, he said, and at MIT it already has accounted for an annual shortfall of $10 million in federal reimbursement of actual and legitimate costs of research.

"As we try to make our case, however, we are increasingly chided for acting like lobbyists, a role with which we are distinctly uncomfortable," Dr. Vest said. "Yet when push comes to shove, a common complaint by members of the Congress when an issue arises is that we haven't been paying enough attention to them."

Dr. Vest acknowledged that universities must also seek to improve their interaction with industry and "the quality of all that they do as organizations and learning communities."

"But we cannot escape the fact that the nation must continue to invest in its system of higher education and research," he said.

"The dreams and visions of our institutions and our students will not be fully realized, and the nation and the world will not fully benefit from our potential, unless a renewed commitment to education and research is forged and widely held by the public."

A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 39, Number 8).

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