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Science careers seen secure despite federal support decline

Students can feel secure choosing a career in science even though federal research funding is expected to decline as much as 25 percent from 1995-2002, said panelists at a September 10 Technology and Culture Forum event entitled "Who Will Pay for Your Research?"

A report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science in July tracked the projected federal spending on non-defense research and development. About $34 billion was spent in 1995, while President Clinton's original budget projected spending at about $29.8 billion in 2002. But his fiscal 1997 budget plan released this July pushed down projected spending even more, to about $28 billion. And the fiscal 1997 Congressional budget resolution allowed for a budget of even less-about $26.8 billion in 2002.

"I don't think these cuts will be sustained as long or as deep," Julius A. Stratton Professor of Physics and Nobel laureate Henry Kendall told a large audience in Rm 6-120. "The need for science and technology will surface quickly, so students do not need to worry that their careers in science and technology will be withdrawn. This should not be a cause for deep dismay or gloom at a university like MIT."

However, there already has been damage to MIT, primarily in the form of administrative changes like cost reimbursement/sharing and tuition/fellowship policies, said President Charles M. Vest. "We went through some scary moments last year with Bates Lab. In fact, the whole Department of Nuclear Energy was almost wiped out," he said. MIT already has R&D shortfalls of $12-$15 million a year, a figure that will grow to $30-$35 million a year in fiscal 1998, Dr. Vest added.

Professor Kendall said the public has looked at the budget for science and technology and concluded that all the money is not well spent, which he added is partially true. He pointed to a number of national laboratories where as much as 40 percent of the budgets are spent on administrative and compliance issues. "This is a staggering percentage-in the billions of dollars," he said.

He also said scientists need to bridge the gap in public perception. Professor Kendall pointed to a recent Roper poll that showed only 7 percent of the public believes the United States now leads the world in science and that 54 percent think it is fine for the United States to be only in the top one-third of world nations in science in the coming years. "The scientific community has the responsibility, which it has not discharged as it should have, to communicate the nuts and bolts of the culture of science to the public," he said.

Ernest Moniz, professor of physics and currently associate coordinator of the US Office of Science and Technology Policy, said that for a national science policy to work, the government also needs to support higher learning. "In today's world we cannot treat science and technology policy and higher education policy as two separate items," he said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 18, 1996.

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