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Vest urges continued support for US science

(Because of a production error, most of the remarks of President Charles M. Vest at the colloquium on Science in the National Interest were omitted from the last issue. This article includes them along with amplification by other speakers.)

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

At the "Science in the National Interest" forum at MIT, moderated by Provost Mark S. Wrighton, Dr. Vest and other speakers stressed the importance of basic research and of sustained support of that research. The forum was attended by representatives of 58 corporations, 48 universities and many of the national laboratories.

Dr. Vest 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 why federal support for basic research is especially important in the current economic climate, 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 in danger of rapid disintegration. Industry is not doing the job, and universities or national laboratories have not been doing it nor have they been funded to do it."

Commenting on other aspects of national science and technology policy, he said:

"The Clinton administration ran on a platform that put strong emphasis on technology as driver of our economy and key to the future. They have 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. [It] 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 the domestic discretionary budget...

"The new 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 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 a lot of sentiment that investment in 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, which I think would be disastrous for the nation. The cancellation of the superconducting supercollider still reverberates as a symbol of our national inability to make and keep large-scale, multi-year commitments.


Concerning universities, Dr. Vest said, "The halos of our research universities were tarnished by events such as the Dingell hearings. 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," Dr. Vest said.

Dr. Vest's comments reflected those of other speakers at the day-long forum, held at the Bartos Theater in the Wiesner Building.

"Industry R&D will continue to move away from basic to applied research," said Dr. Leon E. Rosenberg, president of the Bristol-Myers Squibb Pharmaceutical Research Institute. "I have learned in the last two years how rapidly companies make changes in R&D budgets when the bottom line demands that they do so.

"If this trend continues, and I believe it will, then publicly funded basic research will become even more important. My job is to translate exciting new science into safe, efficacious medicines. Neither my colleagues nor I can accomplish this without a national commitment to basic research."

DuPont Senior Vice President Joseph A. Miller, who is in charge of that firm's R&D laboratories, also stressed that "support for basic research must continue unabated." Yet Dr. Miller noted that this support "should not be the sole responsibility of the government. If we expect key emerging industries to excel, we in industry must be involved."

Dr. Anita K. Jones, director of defense research and engineering for the Department of Defense, also referred to the "chilly winds on the hill" as to whether DOD should invest in university research.

These DOD funds, which among other things support some 8,000 graduate students a year, are an important part of the nation's long-term investment in research, she said.

One example of this investment involves a DOD-funded project to develop microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) such as the tiny sensors that trigger air bags in cars. These "smart" microscopic devices have a range of current and potential applications.

The Multi-User MEMS Project, or MUMPS, is a fabrication facility for these devices. In other words, said Dr. Jones, "if you have a design of a MEMS device, send us a copy of that design, plus a token amount of money, and some number of weeks later you'll get half a dozen dies [of the device]."

This service "permits university projects to operate in start-up mode and get some experience with this technology. It also allows small businesses to have an entree to fabrication lines that they could not otherwise afford. This is the kind of thing the government ought to do," Dr. Jones said.

Professor D. Allan Bromley, dean of engineering at Yale and science advisor to the Bush administration, said individual connections between politicians and scientists are "vitally important. Just the people in this room could make an enormous difference to the 104th Congress if each one of you talks to your representative."

Concluding the conference, Dr. Vest said, "The conversation has been a bit gentler than I predicted or than perhaps might have been desirable. Nonetheless, I think a lot of wisdom and insight has been displayed and I think all of us are returning to our respective venues with a lot of new things to think about, and more importantly still to join forces across our cultures to work on."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 15, 1995.

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