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Supporting research universities helps keep America strong

This editorial was originally published in the August 30 issue of US News & World Report.

There's a great irony in this issue of US News: the school ranked No. 1 in the country among national universities this year could also be No. 1 on the chopping block in Washington, DC. It makes no sense, but it's true -- and it's dangerous.

The California Institute of Technology, this year's winner, is smack in the bull's-eye of budget cutters, says its president, David Baltimore. When Congress and the president got together in 1997 on spending plans, they placed tough budget caps on a wide range of domestic programs. At first, the caps didn't affect much, but this year, if applied, they'll squeeze hard, and nowhere more so than in scientific research and technology.

"All major research universities would be hurt, but we think we are uniquely vulnerable because so much of our research depends upon government funding," Baltimore said in an interview last week.

His university got a foretaste of what might come when a House subcommittee this year voted a nearly 10 percent cut in NASA funding. Officials at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, whose research and faculty are intimately linked to Caltech, thought they would have to make draconian reductions in their programs or even close down. Fortunately, the local Republican congressman, James Rogan, managed to rescue JPL -- at least for now.


Space exploration is not the only area facing uncertainty. So are research programs sponsored by the National Science Foundation; oceanic and atmospheric programs; renewable-energy technologies; agricultural research; environmental research and more. Only defense seems spared for sure. How in heaven's name can a nation with a $1 trillion surplus threaten so much scientific research so vital to its future?

"This is a potential disaster," says Baltimore, a Nobel Prize winner for his work in virology. "I have to believe it won't happen. But [members of Congress] have themselves in a box, and they have to find a way out."

Baltimore is counting not only on stout Republican allies like John Porter of Illinois but on a collective sense in Congress that science has been a prime generator of America's exuberant economic performance in recent years. Whether his faith is justified remains to be seen. The same Congressmen who say they favor advances in medicine have allowed cuts in Medicare to put some teaching hospitals on life support. Two years ago, Congress and the White House rallied to the calls of Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Republican Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas to increase science and technology funding by 7 percent a year for 10 years -- a worthy goal. This year that support has been withering.

Washington needs to wake up. Just as the patrons of Renaissance Italy supported artists, statesmen today should support scientists and engineers. The electronic revolution now underway flowed out of basic university research financed largely by the federal government.Within the next 50 years, as Baltimore points out, a revolution in biotechnology could bring breathtaking advances in health, longevity, food supplies and even energy supplies. But that, too, will depend on robust federal support.

Private corporations no longer engage much in long-term, basic research. They look to major universities -- many of those in the top US News rankings this week -- for that effort. The universities in turn look to Washington for help because scientific research has become so expensive. Consider Caltech: the cost of educating in its state-of-the-art laboratories works out to an average of $192,000 per student per year! The student is charged $25,476, only one-eighth of the total expense; most of the rest comes from Uncle Sam.

Is it worth it? If you wonder, take time out on a trip to Pasadena and visit the faculty club at Caltech. There on the wall are photographs of scientists who have taught at the university -- Richard Feynman, Linus Pauling, Murray Gell-Mann, Max Delbr��ck and others. They are among the 27 university faculty and alumni who have brought Nobel Prizes to America. Is any more proof needed?

Copyright August 30, 1999, US News & World Report.

A version of this article appeared in the September 1, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 44, Number 4).

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