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Research Funding Restored by Senate

By Ramy A. Arnaout
Associate News Editor

Strong lobbying earned MIT and other universities a tepid victory in Congress last month, as a Senate appropriations subcommittee restored all but $81 million of the $900 million in university funding cut from next year's Defense Department budget by a House subcommittee in late June ["DOD Cuts Threaten Research," July 20].

While the Senate version of the budget must eventually be squared with the House version before the full Congress can vote on the bill, most MIT officials are confident that the final funding level will be close to the $819 million decided on by the Senate, said Daniel E. Hastings, associate head for research in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

John C. Crowley, special assistant to the president and director of MIT's Washington office, and others expect the two subcommittees to meet in conference to discuss the two versions by the end of September.

The House-proposed cut of $900 million represented 62 percent of the $1.5 billion in DOD support originally set aside by the Clinton administration for university-based research. Congressional approval of the bill in its House form would have severe consequences for research universities in general and especially for MIT, which gets 20 percent of its overall research funding from the DOD - the most of any school in the nation.

Reaction cautiously positive

The Senate's decision was met with an air of relief at MIT. But the prevailing mood is one of caution, as MIT awaits the conference committee's final version of the budget.

"The Massachusetts delegation responded vigorously and effectively" in its lobbying efforts, Crowley said in The Globe on July 26. "We are hopeful that Congress will endorse this level of funding. But it is not over."

Hastings agreed. "I suspect that this is only the first shot," he said. "We're going to hear about this question again."

While the restoration of most of the funding offers some relief, the $81 million reduction will take a toll on MIT, Crowley said. "The reductions taken in the DOD research programs will have a concentrated effect in [MIT] research departments, both for the faculty and graduate students funded [through the DOD]," he said.

A "new mood" in Washington

The House's original decision to cut university funding resulted in part from a turf war between representatives John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee (which suggested the cut), and George E. Brown Jr. (D-Calif.), who heads the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, Hastings said.

The controversy centers around how government funding should be awarded. Murtha favors congressional earmarking, while Brown prefers a "peer review" process. "There is antagonism between the two," he said.

According to the Aug. 15 article, in fiscal year 1993 Murtha persuaded Congress to earmark $38 million in defense projects for universities in or near his home district. Hastings sees the severity of the House's cut as Murtha's response to Brown's attack on earmarking.

Speculation aside, many think this personal dispute only provided the spark for the cut. They see the current funding debate more as part of an increasingly cost-conscious mood in Washington, Hastings said.

The threatened cut is not a unique phenomenon; instead, "what's going on is a very fundamental shift in the paradigm of what the defense money is going for" in the aftermath of the Cold War, he said. "The emphasis these days is so much on economic return, the idea of supporting something for its own sake is no longer [acceptable]," Hastings said.

In addition, Washington feels that universities still have the perception that "these funds are an entitlement, [that] some of the universities are arrogant" and wasteful with generous government support, he said. "The problem has been corrected, but word has still not reached the Hill. There's still a feeling of inefficiency," he said.