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Tsao, Chitaley Organize UROP Lobbying Effort

By Jeremy Hylton

Undergraduate Association Vice President Anne S. Tsao '94 is organizing small groups of students to work as UROP evangelists in the MIT community -- as part of the effort to solve the funding problem facing the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program.

"These people are going to go out into the community to motivate and inspire," Tsao said.

Students need to become better informed about the problems facing UROP and need to help raise awareness of the problem in the federal government, Tsao explained.

Tsao will also distribute packets that will tell students how to write letters to their senators and representatives asking them to help save UROP funding.

Starting July 1, the cost to a professor of hiring UROP students will increase by more than 125 percent as a result of new federal rules about overhead costs and employee benefits.

While the full repercussions of the new rules are not entirely clear, some professors have said they will stop hiring UROP students because they will cost too much money.

"The problem is as bad as we thought it was going to be," explained Raajnish A. Chitaley '95. "People are severely cutting back on their UROPs."

Chitaley is a member of a working group appointed by Provost Mark S. Wrighton to examine solutions to the funding problem. The group will make a report to Wrighton by May 1.

In the past, UROP had secured a waiver that exempted student salaries from employee benefits and overhead charges. But the government eliminated that waiver when it revised its rules about how universities can bill the indirect costs of doing research to the government. Indirect research costs include money used to pay for adminstration, libraries, and the physical plant.

The rule changes were intended to correct what the General Accounting Office called the "lax oversight practices" of agencies supervising research activities and monitoring indirect costs. The rules changes were not designed to affect UROP, according to Chitaley.

"UROP is the unintended victim of efforts to make indirect cost rules more uniform," Chitaley said.

Personal stories needed

In the packet for students, Tsao plans to include information describing the problems facing UROP and what students can do to help, along with two sample letters and addresses of senators and congressmen.

The packets should be available sometime in the next two weeks, Tsao said.

"Our duty is to raise students' awareness of this issue. First we have to start here, but the ultimate goal is to raise awareness in DC," Tsao said.

Earlier this year, Wrighton made an unsuccessful effort to lobby government officials involved in the process. Tsao hopes that direct appeals by students will have a stronger impact.

Letters to congressmen definitely need to be factual, but Tsao said it was more important to include a personal statement about how UROP has affected them.

"If a congressman gets five letters that are inspiring and motivational, ... then even five letters can make a huge amount of difference," Tsao said.

The group of students Tsao has organized will work to keep students informed and motivated by keeping themselves well-informed and abreast of what is going on with UROP, Tsao said.

Chitaley is organizing a separate lobbying effort directed at congressional staffs and the heads of agencies that sponsor research at MIT. "We're going to try to get a small group of students to go to Washington later this month. They will basically try to meet with agency heads and tell them about the importance of UROP and getting this waiver back," Chitaley said.