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Vest urges rebuilding US science system

Grappling with overriding budget issues and a dramatically new international environment, America's scientific and political leaders "must build a strong, mutually supportive system" that serves the national interest in both the near term and long term, MIT President Charles M. Vest said Tuesday.

In remarks prepared for delivery late in the afternoon to the "Science in the National Interest" forum at MIT, Dr. Vest, speaking about the national research and development system, said:

"Science generally has enjoyed strong nonpartisan support for half of this century. As the nation grapples with the overriding budget issues and a dramatically new international environment, we must strive to retain this support and its nonpartisan nature. As leaders of government, industry and academia we must build a strong, mutually supportive system for scientific advancement and technological innovation that serves the national interest in both the near and long term."

Commenting on the background, Dr. Vest said:

"In order to become internationally competitive, most large companies have transformed their research and development organizations into groups that focus on reduction of product cycle times, improvement of quality and other critically important but near-term goals.

"Consequently, much of our important mid- to long-range research that is a prime source of innovation and future products has been eliminated.

"In short, the system that couples basic research to commercial application is disintegrating. Industry is not doing the job, and universities or national laboratories have not been funded to do it either.

"It seems to me that we are faced with a situation where elements of our national innovation system, especially companies, are making locally optimal decisions, but as their developments become increasingly near term and protected as intellectual property, the shared scientific knowledge and technological advances that make the entire system progress are in danger."

Commenting on other aspects of national science and technology policy, Dr. Vest said:

"The Clinton administration ran on a platform that put strong emphasis on technology as a driver of our economy and the key to the future. It has released two major policy statements, Technology for America's Economic Growth and Science in the National Interest. Science in the National Interest called for a "shared commitment" among government, industry and the universities.

"Science in the National Interest is a well-received policy document that can form the basis of strong national commitment to science as being essential to the development of a vibrant future.

"Yesterday, the President released a budget for university research, science and technology, and civilian technology development that is strong relative to the rest of domestic discretionary budget. It includes increases of seven percent in government-wide academic research, 3.5 percent in civilian basic research, and eight percent in government-wide applied research.

"The new Republican Congressional leadership indicates that dramatic cuts will be made across domestic discretionary accounts, which include all of the agencies that fund research except for DOD. And the pressures to reduce all domestic discretionary spending, including the funding of science, technology and education, are expected to continue for several years.

"The new Republican Congressional leadership states that the federal government should support basic research in universities. They appear to be energizing a bipartisan commitment to merit-based grant and contract awards, and strongly opposing academic earmarking.

"There is some sentiment that programs such as the Advanced Technology Program, the Technology Reinvestment Program and Sematech are not appropriate uses of federal support. In my view, there is a danger that opposition to such "applied research" may inadvertently generate budget cuts to many extremely important activities in engineering and applied research. There is some sentiment that DOD should stop supporting basic research.

"The cancellation of the superconducting supercollider still reverberates as a symbol of our national inability to make and keep large-scale, multi-year commitments.


"The halos of our research universities were tarnished by events such as the Dingell hearings on the uses of indirect costs. They have not recovered in the eyes of many in Congress and in the press, despite the sustained hard work by many to improve the system, including the new proposals just published in the Federal Register.

"Universities have found themselves continually on the defensive as they have hosted innumerable auditors and investigators on their campuses, and have fought for four years to stop federal shifting of research costs to other revenue sources-tuition income, gifts and endowment, and state support.

"Despite this, the Clinton Administration, and the Bush administration before it, maintained very open and meaningful dialogue with the university community on policy issues. We are grateful.

"America's universities remain a precious national asset, combining great and varied intellectual capacity and responsibility for the education of the next generation. They must, however, recognize the seismic changes in their environment, and they must strive to get their costs under control and remain affordable. Their role in the future of America's science strategy must be clarified, and their federal support must be stabilized."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 8, 1995.

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