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Audits Threaten 50-Year Relationship

The government gains access to top-notch researchers while universities receive financial support.

But if the Defense Contract Audit Agency's audit of MIT is a taste of the future, the heyday of government-sponsored research may be coming to an end. The DCAA and several other agencies have spent more than a year poring over MIT's finances in search of fraud and the misuse of government grants. MIT has cooperated with the auditors throughout the process, and should continue to do so. The flood of negative publicity created by the audit has grated against the Institute's top leaders, who are obviously annoyed.

In some ways, MIT's annoyance with the auditors is justified. The Institute receives several hundred million dollars in research grants from the government every year, and the news that MIT may have misused some of that money will certainly not help the Institute win any new contracts.

This is not to say that MIT has been completely honest about its bookkeeping. A university is a business, and it is not uncommon for businesses to play games with their financial records. While it remains to be seen just how much MIT will eventually owe the government, its initial $780,000 payment raises suspicions that other questionable uses of funds are yet to be uncovered.

But MIT is not the only guilty party in this mess. The government -- particularly Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the Oversight andInvestigations Subcommittee -- tried to publicly embarrass MIT and other universities for alleged misuses of funds, even before formal evidence was presented before the committee. Perhaps sending Institute employees to Barbados on the government's tab was inappropriate, but the implication that such an event is typical is simply ludicrous. Dingell probably means well and intends merely to save the American people money, but his hardball tactics boost his image more than they accomplish this goal. Indeed, one of the government's primary approaches to the audit has been to ignore several agreements that, in principle, allow the Institute to keep many of the funds the DCAA is now demanding.

The government should be applauded for its efforts to save the taxpayers money. But no one stands to gain from undue harassment of institutions that are probably guilty of nothing more than a few fudged finances. The DCAA and other agencies should realize that attacking American research may cost everyone more, both financially and technologically, than it stands to get back. If the government does not tone down its criticism, MIT -- and a number of other uniersities -- may decide that working for the government is not worth the hassle.