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Washington office to establish Institute presence


By Dave Watt

MIT's planned office in Washington, DC may mark the Institute's first formal foray into the world of lobbying for scientific research programs.

Some consider an MIT presence in Washington long overdue, especially after MIT lost a contract for the National Magnet Laboratory last year to a concerted lobbying effort by Florida State University. But others question whether lobbying by individual universities could lead to a politicization of the peer-review process normally accorded scientific projects.

"Universities that commit to [taking] part in national organizations can shape policy, by making the resources of MIT available to the organizations and to Congress," according to John C. Crowley, the recently appointed director of MIT's Washington office. Crowley is now a vice president of the Association of American Universities in Washington, and will take over MIT's office in Washington full-time starting Aug. 12.

Crowley deferred all questions about the role that MIT's new office might play in lobbying for funding for specific projects to President Charles M. Vest, who was unavailable for comment.

MIT's leaders have historically had wide personal influence in Washington. From former president James R. Killian Jr. '26's role as a science advisor to President Dwight Eisenhower, to former Provost John M. Deutch '61's defense connections, MIT officials have actively contributed to science, technology and defense policy since World War II.

But neither Provost Mark S. Wrighton nor Vest has extensive Washington connections. Wrighton raised $1 million per year from government and industry for his research group, but his closest ties are with industry, including a $3 million endowed professorship from Ciba-Geigy, a pharmaceutical firm.

Vest also has consulted widely in industry, but before he came to MIT, his only major contact with Washington was as a long-term consultant to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (then the National Bureau of Standards), beginning in 1979.

Currently, only 12 percent of MIT's research funding comes from industry, according to an article by Deutch that appeared in the June 1991 issue of Technology Review.

With the planned decline of defense budgets over the next five years, MIT is working to establish closer contact with non-defense agencies in Washington, particularly the National Science Foundation. The selection of NSF Director Walter E. Massey as this year's commencement speaker may be one indication of these efforts.

Most federal agencies funding research, including the NSF, use a system of peer review to decide which proposals will receive funding. Professors and other researchers submit proposals, which are then sent to their peers for judgment. Authors of proposals do not, in general, know who reviews them.

But over the past several years, Congress has sometimes gone over the heads of the funding agencies and funded research at universities directly. In 1989, Congress mandated that the Department of the Interior award Brandeis University $3 million for a bioscience center, according to a 1989 article in Reason. The article cites several other examples of this intervention, including a $60,000 award to the University of Massachusetts in 1987 for a Belgian Endive Research Center.

Furthermore, funding for "big science" projects, like the National Magnet Laboratory and the Superconducting Supercollider, is often awarded on both technical and political grounds.

Even though several technical reviews chose MIT's proposal for the $60 million magnet laboratory to be the best submitted, a lobbying effort by Florida state politicians helped to persuade the NSF to place the lab at Florida State University. To NSF officials, MIT support for the lab seemed unenthusiastic.

Whether such a loss could have been prevented by a Washington office is unclear, but it is likely that such an office will be able to alert MIT officials to potential political defeats in the future. As competition for federal money becomes more fierce, MIT may be looking for an inside track.