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Putting research in the spotlight

Senior research officers from MIT and universities across the U.S. met with the press to discuss the future of the research enterprise.
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MIT Vice President for Research Maria Zuber discusses federal investment in science and engineering at the National Press Club in Washington.
MIT Vice President for Research Maria Zuber discusses federal investment in science and engineering at the National Press Club in Washington.
Photo: Rachel Couch

In a world with constant streams of media covering everything from Hollywood to local news, research rarely gets a chance to tell its story. But on July 15, research leaders gathered at the National Press Club at the “All Things Research” media roundtable to tell stories of exciting opportunities on the horizon. They spoke of exploration beyond our solar system, advanced materials to enable clean and abundant fusion energy, the development of drought resistance plants to ensure a secure food supply, optical technologies to detect cancer, and more.

Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, spoke of the importance of a broad portfolio of research — from basic to applied, surefire to high-risk-high-reward, across all fields of science — to achieve national prosperity and advance knowledge.

The increasingly constrained federal budget has led some in Congress to propose limiting funding to only the science that is “in the national interest.” Some have targeted specific areas, like social science and geoscience, for defunding. To that notion Zuber responded, “Outstanding science in any field is in the national interest.”

Cautioning against political interference, Zuber added, “The best decider of how [science] funds ought to be apportioned is the science community.” All the research leaders in attendance agreed that the solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems, from terrorism, to drought, to healthcare rely, in part, on social science research.

David Wynes, vice president for research administration at Emory University, echoed Zuber’s comments, and urged policy makers to trust the peer review system. Scientific advances, he said, come from funding the best science.

The conversation turned to the threat of an innovation deficit — the impact of the widening gap between the federal government’s investment in research and what is needed if we are to maintain U.S. leadership in science and innovation.

Gloria Waters, vice president for research at Boston University, conveyed the frustration of researchers who are working on the cusp of great new discoveries — perhaps more so than ever in history — yet are constrained by the absence of funds needed to make those discoveries and innovations possible.

MIT recently issued a report, “The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens a U.S. Innovation Deficit,” to highlight 15 exciting opportunities in research with great potential for innovation. Zuber said the report was motivated by the funding constraints posed by sequestration and budget caps.

Because we can’t know the answer to a certain problem in advance, we have to cast a wide net and invest broadly in science and engineering, says Zuber. We must support creative, interdisciplinary research — such as the convergence of the life and physical sciences — and invest in all fields of science to address society’s most pressing challenges and drive the next big discoveries.

The All Things Research media roundtable was sponsored by the American Association of Universities and The Science Coalition. A video of the event is posted at

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