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Legislator discusses future of science research funding

The chairman of the US House Science Committee visited MIT on October 12 to discuss the future of federal funding for research, capping the day by attending a luncheon with department heads.

US Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-WI) was invited to the campus by President Charles M. Vest. He was accompanied by his chief of staff, Richard Russell, who attended a seminar at the Sloan School of Management last spring.

Before the luncheon, Rep. Sensenbrenner met privately with two groups of faculty and administrators to discuss topics of interest to each -- transfer and startups with the first group and information technology initiatives with the second.

In his luncheon remarks, he noted that a bill authorizing $126 million for basic information technology research "represents a major commitment... and bodes well for the future of IT research spending." Since the visit, both houses of Congress have approved the legislation.

He said a bill which he co-sponsored with the late US Rep. George Brown (D-CA) would provide $4.8 billion for IT research from 2000-2004, a substantial increase. The bill would create the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development Program, which would be managed primarily through the National Science Foundation.

The legislation includes $130 million for large grants of up to $1 million for high-end computing, software and networking research; $220 million for information technology research centers; and $95 million for universities to establish intern programs for research at private companies. "And I would be remiss if I failed to mention that the bill also authorizes $111 million through fiscal year 2002 for the completion of the Next-Generation Internet Program," Rep. Sensenbrenner said.

During a question-and-answer period, he made the following points:

  • "Some [international projects], like the space station and the LHC [Large Hadron Collider], are beyond the means of any single country. The difference between the blueprint of success and sure failure is to very clearly set out the rights and responsibilties of each nation before research starts -- what each should pay, which equipment and parts each should provide and keep, governance, time and access issues."
  • "If science doesn't ask for so much that it defies credibility, [federal funding] will keep going up. We need a detailed road map on how science plans to spend the money, recognizing that science is pretty subjective."
  • The US must continue to spend money on research "to buy the seed corn to keep" our competitive edge. "That is a very convincing story to be told. And it's easier to tell now since the recession of 1991-92 is fading from mind."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 20, 1999.

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