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MIT trio joins science reps to fight research funding cuts

An MIT faculty member, alumnus and undergraduate joined nearly 100 university presidents, professors and students from around the country who traveled with Science Coalition members to Washington, DC on September 21-22 to urge support for the federal government's continued investment in university-based scientific and engineering research.

With Congress under pressure to stay within spending caps approved in the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, New England stands to lose $1.5 billion in research and development money, about a third of local universities' current allotment.

Paul E. Laibinis, associate professor of chemical engineering, said that the trip was an eye-opener for him. "It helped me gain some insight into the process in terms of what Congress goes through with the allocation of funds. I have a better perspective on the need for educating them with information on where research funds go and the connections between basic and applied research."

John Santini, a recent PhD graduate in chemical engineering, and David Kong, a junior in chemical engineering, accompanied him to Washington.

Professor Laibinis found that many of the congressmen he met with were better informed than he had anticipated.

Dr. Santini said, "One of the key things we took away from this is the knowledge that to change the mindset of Congress in supporting basic research, you really have to target congressmen from states and districts that don't have a strong research presence. If a state doesn't have a strong research presence, that state's representatives don't necessarily see the connection that basic research benefits everyone. I think the Science Coalition did a good job of targeting that at a really critical time. The votes over the next week or so will really make a difference."

He said it's important for Congress to see that basic scientific research often leads to major discoveries that help large numbers of people. He pointed out that 20-year-old basic research on gold corrosion was pivotal to a breakthrough new invention in the laboratory where he worked with Michael Cima, the Sumitomo Electric Industries Professor of Ceramic Processing, and Robert Langer, the Kenneth J. Germeshausen Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering. "That link in many cases is not well-communicated," he said.

The MIT invention, "pharmacy on a chip" -- a novel drug delivery system developed in part by Dr. Santini while he held a National Science Foundation fellowship -- was encased in lucite and given to Sens. Pete Domenici (R-NM), Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), Bill Frist (R-TN) and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), and Reps. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), Vernon J. Ehlers (R-MI), Bob Etheridge (D-NC) and the late George Brown (D-CA) for their support of basic science research.

"Science: Invest in the Future" was spearheaded by the Science Coalition, an alliance founded with the help of President Charles M. Vest of more than 400 organizations, institutions and individuals, including Nobel laureates, businesses, voluntary health organizations, medical groups, health care providers, scientific societies, and public and private universities. It is dedicated to sustaining the federal government's commitment to US leadership in basic science.

The group's planning committee is chaired by John C. Crowley, director of the MIT Washington Office. Mr. Crowley was assisted with last week's event by, a Washington-based government relations and public affairs firm.

"I was elated by how well the entire enterprise turned out, including the three people from MIT who were centrally engaged. It worked extremely well here," Mr. Crowley said.


Professor Laibinis said that he met with his hometown representative, Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski (D-PA), for more than an hour. "We had quite a comprehensive meeting about research, education, local schools, etc. He has quite an interest in science and expressed a greater need to connect industry with universities in a formal way to solve problems. His goal appeared economic. He impressed me with his knowledge about some favorite science/technology projects and his creativity in thinking about bigger science projects that could unite different areas."

Former astronaut George "Pinky" Nelson and Frederick Smith, chairman and CEO of FDX Corp. and chairman and founder of FedEx, both spoke about the interdependence of science research and the nation's economy. They applauded the coalition's effort to fight for sustained funding levels.

Also as part of event, the Science Coalition displayed eight exhibits, including Virtual Vietnam, a virtual environment for the treatment of chronic post-traumatic stress disorder; a demonstration of "smart building techniques" that deal with structural threats from earthquakes, windstorms and explosives; and a seven-foot model of the AMANDA Antarctic ice telescope.

These exhibits were presented by Tufts University, the University of Wisconsin, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, the University of Notre Dame, the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University, Florida State University, Rutgers University and Columbia University.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 29, 1999.

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