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DOD Cut Threatens Research

By Ramy A. Arnaout
Associate News Editor

In a move that could have dire consequences for university-based research at MIT and schools across the country, the House Appropriations Committee last month approved a measure that would cut next year's Defense Department university research funding in half - from $1.8 billion to $900 million.

Should the Senate approve the bill when it comes up for debate next month, MIT would face a loss of $34 to $40 million in DOD funding next year, according to a release from the MIT Office of Government and Community Affairs. According to The Boston Globe, DOD funding represented $72 million, or roughly 20 percent, of MIT's total research funding this year.

The proposed cut would also deal a heavy blow to other Massachusetts schools: the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute could expect a loss of up to $8.4 million; the University of Massachusetts, $7.8 million; and Harvard University, $6.8 million, the Globe reported. Overall, the proposed measure could cost the state $100 million next year in DOD university funding, and even more money in the future, as the reduction in research investment would dampen the usual growth of area spinoff companies, the Globe reported.

Faculty concerned

Faculty and staff alike expressed apprehension at the subcommittee's proposed funding cut, and cited both the historical and current importance of DOD support.

"I think [the implications of the outcome] will be very important for the Institute as a whole, and in fact for the scientific research and economic productivity in the country," said Professor Mujid S. Kazimi, head of the Department of Nuclear Engineering. "The DOD funding in areas such as communications, aerospace, and artificial intelligence has propelled such fields in the U.S. to more advanced levels than [in] the rest of the world. Consequently, the competitiveness of the U.S. in such areas will suffer as the introduction of new technology decelerates" in response to the cut, said Kazimi, whose department would be affected by the measure.

"The point that deserves attention is that the reason this [measure] passed the House is that there is some latent feeling in Congress that the budget of research universities should be cut," said Paul L. Penfield Jr. '60, head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, which stands to lose significant funding if Congress approves the cut.

"This is not a separate incident. Even if we win this year, this is an issue that will come back next year, and the next," Penfield said.

"It is not hyperbole to say that the impact would be devastating," said John C. Crowley, special assistant to the president and director of MIT's Washington office, in Tech Talk.

Provost Mark S. Wrighton agreed. "This is not budget trimming," he said in the Globe. "This is the budget ax."

The cut would also trouble the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, which is still fighting the effects of new overhead costs imposed earlier this year.

"What hurts MIT's research, hurts UROP," said UROP Coordinator Norma McGavern. "Even though we can no longer waive overhead on sponsored research -which of course this DOD money is - faculty will continue to hire students for research, but not if there are millions of dollars less of it."

Murtha wants to send message'

Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), who chairs the House subcommittee, spearheaded the move to cut the budget as an effort to "send a message" to Congress and the Pentagon to bring university research into line with other DOD spending, according to reports in the Globe and the journal Science.

According to the National Science Foundation's annual survey of research and development spending, university-based research spending has risen 22 percent over the past four years, while defense spending has dropped 15 percent. "With everything else going down, research shouldn't be going up," Murtha said.

Despite the impact the proposed cuts will have on university research funding, Murtha does not refute the merit of basic research, he told Science. Instead, the decision was made more in an effort to rescue defense than to punish research: in an age of military budget cutbacks, the value of university research pales before the long-term importance of defense and the military, he said.

However, in spite of his committee's target of cutting Defense Department spending by half, Murtha has said that he would not oppose efforts to restore funding when the measure comes up for final approval in Congress, the Globe said. While his outlook should ease universities' efforts to block the measure's passage, it also raises questions as to Murtha's goal in pushing through such a conspicuously deep spending cut. Recent reports in the Globe and Nature suggest that the proposing such a deep cut might serve mainly as an attention-getter and as a starting point from which to work toward a more conservative cutback. Murtha remains confident that a compromise can be struck: "Now that we've got their attention," he said in Science, "I think we can make some progress on the issue."

MIT engages lobbying effort

Whatever the motive, the passage of the measure in the House subcommittee has gotten the full attention of area universities. Murtha's statement coincides with the launching of a massive lobbying campaign by MIT and other universities in Massachusetts and elsewhere to prevent the subcommittee's decision from passing in the Senate next month.

In a news briefing sent out last week, the Office of Government and Community Affairs called upon the MIT community to urge their Congressmen to prevent the proposed cuts from becoming final.

"Inform your colleagues and ask for their help in opposing these cuts," the briefing said. "Time is of the essence Efforts are underway to persuade the Subcommittee on Defense of the Senate Committee on Appropriations," chaired by Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), "to restore the funding," it said. The briefing further recommended that individual and group efforts should be geared toward petitioning Inouye and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) to fully restore the threatened funding.