Faced with a potentially drastic curtailment of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program this summer because of changes in federal reimbursement policies, MIT has allocated up to $1 million to keep UROP at close to last summer's level.
The one-time fund transfer will help faculty members compensate for higher costs of hiring UROP students starting July 1. From that time forward, the government will no longer allow universities to waive fringe benefits and indirect costs of research for UROP; they must be paid from faculty grants and accounts, just as UROP salaries are. This change will effectively double the cost to faculty of hiring UROP students and therefore make them much less fiscally attractive to hire.
The $1 million appropriation will result in summer UROPs costing faculty "almost the same as last year," UROP director Norma McGavern said. "We can't meet the entire need, but we'll do our best."
A working committee headed by James L. Elliot, professor of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, has been looking for ways to minimize the new rules' impact on UROP. That group is expected to submit a formal list of recommendations to Provost Mark S. Wrighton on May 1. The summer allocation is intended to sustain UROP while these long-term solutions are being investigated.
"This regrettable situation comes with such a short time frame for coping that the MIT administration felt that the one-time relief in the form of a matching commitment would be an appropriate action to maintain the UROP program," Professor Wrighton said. "The $1 million represents a major commitment and signals our resolve regarding the importance of UROP for our students."
Alternative funding possibilities discussed at a February forum on the crisis include the National Science Foundation's Research Experience for Undergraduates program, and UROP-earmarked gifts from alumni, foundations and industry.
"We are fortunate that we have set aside `reserves' to deal with such an abrupt change in the rules governing the conduct of research. However, these reserves are being rapidly depleted by such changes in these rules and by the need to use these reserves to fund the operating deficit of the Institute," Dr. Wrighton said. "Unfortunately, the resources of the Institute are not sufficient to simply add the needed funding to the recurring budget of the UROP Office."
"We still are going to have to think long and hard about what we want to do in the fall, the spring and especially next summer," Ms. McGavern said. She and UROP administrator Debbie Shoap (who replaced Claude Poux after he took a job at Cornell) are in the process of visiting every department and major lab, talking to UROP coordinators about the latest developments and emphasizing the need to work closely with her office "to make sure our priorities match their priorities so we'll be able to make the most sensible decisions," she said.
UROP mentors must contact the UROP office to obtain the matching commitment needed to offset the additional expenditures, Provost Wrighton said. They will receive their money in the form of unrestricted funds, which should serve as an additional incentive to hire undergraduates, he added. When details about the disbursement of this summer's money are fully worked out, explanatory letters will probably go out to faculty members, Ms. McGavern said.
In another change announced last month, the UROP office is accepting student proposals over a three-week period ending Friday, April 22. "We don't want to award funding just to the swiftest, but to well-considered proposals," Ms. McGavern said. Last summer, 1,092 UROP projects were funded; during the 1992-93 school year, there were 2,300 projects carried out by about 2,500 students, she said.
A version of this article appeared in the April 13, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 29).