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NSF head foresses university problems

By Niraj S. Desai

American research universities will face serious problems involving funding and enrollments in the future, according to Erich Bloch, director of the National Science Foundation, who spoke last Tuesday in room 9-150. But despite potential future problems, he believes that this is in some ways "the golden age" of research.

Bloch noted that the dollar value of federal support for research and development has been rising steadily and called the US research enterprise "still the most creative and powerful in the world." The discoveries being made today are fundamental and far-reaching, Bloch said, and universities have been at the center of the discovery process.

Despite these signs of success, Bloch saw a mood of uncertainty and pessimism in academia. As a percentage of gross national product, US spending on R&D has remained relatively constant at about 2.8 percent since 1975. During the same period, other countries, notably Japan and West Germany, have increased their shares, and the per-unit cost of research and development has risen substantially.

The composition of R&D spending has also caused concern in universities, Bloch noted. Over the last decade, the military took a heftier share of the country's total research budget, a trend only recently reversed. And the physical sciences and engineering have experienced less growth than other disciplines, including the life sciences.

Moreover, a small number of very expensive projects are seen as draining money and personnel away from the rest of the research enterprise, Bloch said. Among such "big science" projects are the $1.5 billion Hubble Space Telescope and the proposed Superconducting Super Collider, which is expected to cost $8 billion.

Given the size of the federal deficit, research scientists and engineers should not expect continued growth in federal R&D spending, Bloch said. Rather, the research community needs to set priorities, understanding that not all projects can be funded, Bloch argued. He urged researchers to work with government officials and lawmakers on developing the nation's science and technology policies.

Shortage of new personnel

Bloch also warned of an impending shortage of science and engineering personnel.

While demand for technical graduates is up, a recent survey found a drop in the number of college freshmen planning on pursuing science and engineering majors, Bloch said.

He noted that only extraordinary growth in the number of foreign students seeking doctorates at US institutions has kept up enrollment in many engineering and science graduate programs. Foreigners now account for many of the new assistant professor appointments in such departments, according to Bloch.

The situation is made worse because the number of 18-year-olds in the United States is expected to decrease for the rest of the century, Bloch said.

Bloch believed one way to act against the problem was to increase the participation of women, blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans in the technological enterprise. "We haven't done the job that we should in the past and it's time that we make up for that," Bloch said.

He urged universities to intensify their efforts to recruit and train science and engineering students.

Basis for economic health

If the United States and its research universities do nothing about the problems American research faces, the nation's economy will experience "a progressive loss of vigor," Bloch said. The research successes of the last several decades have revolutionized society and provided the basis for our economic health, he said.

The public has come to see the knowledge produced by universities as a commodity, Bloch said, and it expects a return on its R&D investment. This has increased the social pressure on universities and sparked concern about issues like technology transfer to foreign countries, Bloch said.

Fellowship controversy

Answering a question from the audience, Bloch expressed his opinion that MIT may be denying its faculty the opportunity to work with some of the nation's brightest students by restricting the number of NSF graduate fellowships it accepts. MIT has limited the number of fellows who may bring their fellowships here because the NSF cost-of-education allowance does not cover fellows' full tuitions. MIT has in the past had to spend more than $2.9 million per year out of its general fund to make up the difference. As a result of the new policy, some departments are now telling some of their prospective students that, although they are welcome at MIT, they may not bring their fellowships with them.

Bloch said he regretted that MIT had made the decision, but said NSF would not take any action to address MIT's concerns. He noted that no other university has taken a stand similar to that of MIT.