Although federal support of university research has been relatively strong in recent years, certain fields -- especially in engineering -- have done poorly. Why, and what can be done about it, were the subjects of recent talks by Institute Professor Mildred S. Dresselhaus, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Dr. Dresselhaus's main advice to researchers in affected disciplines was: reach out to your legislators, invite them to give talks at MIT about the budget process, and introduce them to students and research projects.
"There's a need [for researchers and legislators] to inform each other about the situation," she said in an interview with MIT Tech Talk. "We should make it clear to policymakers that they are partners with us in investments in research."
The crux of the current problem is budget cuts at the Department of Defense. The DOD is the dominant federal investor in research and development for several engineering fields, including electrical engineering (82 percent of all federal support came from the DOD in fiscal 1995), metallurgy and materials science (73 percent) and mechanical engineering (75 percent).
"So when the DOD budget is hit, it hurts these engineering fields disproportionately," said Professor Dresselhaus. Since 1993 there's been a strong decline in DOD funding, a trend that "is continuing in the '98 budget and, we fear, also in '99."
To make matters worse, Professor Dresselhaus noted that industry support of basic research in these disciplines has also been decreasing. This belies the government's argument that industry dollars will make up for federal cuts, she said.
What to do about the situation? Professor Dresselhaus emphasized that communicating with legislators is key. "The amount of money that we're talking about is a very small portion of the total federal R&D budget, so it doesn't get on people's radar screens unless you point it out."
And now is the time to do that communicating, she added. "As we move into a balanced budget situation the legislators are less under the gun, and they can rectify any mistakes of the past and reassess where the best investments are and how [monies] should be distributed.
"This is a very good time for us to invite our legislators to MIT," Professor Dresselhaus continued. "We have to show them what we're doing so that they can more easily make an informed opinion about what the value of our work is for investment."
In addition to giving legislators tours of labs, she also suggested inviting them to give campus seminars about the budget process. "We should make it clear to them that they are partners with us in this investment."
Faculty interested in contacting legislators can contact Jack Crowley, director of the MIT Washington Office, at (202) 789-1828 or <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
Professor Dresselhaus delivered recent talks on the DOD funding situation at the 150th anniversary of Brown University and at a luncheon for the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 22, 1997.