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Forum to Address UROP Overhead

By Jeremy Hylton

The Undergraduate Association will hold a forum on Monday night to answer questions about how the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program will cope with new government regulations that could effectively double the cost of the program.

Provost Mark S. Wrighton will be the featured speaker at the forum, to be held at 7:45 p.m. in Twenty Chimneys in the Student Center.

Currently, MIT is allowed to waive employee benefit and overhead costs on UROP salaries. Government regulations that take effect on July 1 will end the policy of waiving those costs.

Based on current overhead and employee benefit rates, the cost of hiring a UROP student would go up 126.7 percent, according to Comptroller Philip J. Keohan. The extra costs must be paid by the professor sponsoring the UROP or by the UROP office, effectively doubling the cost of hiring.

A survey of a few researchers who hire UROP students showed that they intended to hire about half as many UROP students if the cost doubles, according to Travis R. Merritt, associate dean for undergraduate academic affairs.

The overhead changes will primarily affect departments and laboratories that receive outside research grants. Sponsored research projects paid about $3.6 million for UROP salaries, according to Keohan.

The Institute has not decided how to deal with the new expenses. Earlier this month, Wrighton created a working group to develop a plan to cope with the new regulations.

Institute remains committed

Wrighton and members of the group emphasized that the Institute remains committed to UROP. "I think UROP will remain an important and essential component of the MIT undergraduate experience," Wrighton said.

Merritt, a member of the working group, agreed that UROP "has become the most powerful and distinctively MIT-like element in the undergraduate educational experience, which puts students and faculty into some kind of contact with each other on a personal basis."

The working group, headed by James L. Elliot, professor of earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences. It will provide Wrighton with its conclusions by May 1, according to UROP Director Norma G. McGavern.

The other members of the working group are: Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Mary Boyce, UA Treasurer Raajnish A. Chitaley '95, and Professor J. Kim Vandiver, director of the Edgerton Center.

Fewer proposals accepted

The UROP office accepted fewer proposals for salaried spring semester UROPs this year, in an effort to save more money for summer UROPs, McGavern said. "The window of opportunity for proposals was about 24 hours," she said.

Wrighton said he sees the future of summer UROPs, which involve more salaries than term-time UROPs, as the biggest problem. But McGavern hopes this summer will be "as normal as possible."

"Summer work in UROP is a period of intense involvement in research," too important to be cut in half, McGavern said.

Summer UROPs will also benefit from the timing of the new regulations. About one-third of the summer salaries will be paid before July 1, so overhead costs will be waived for work done before that date.

"Summer is going to be about two-thirds of what it might have been," McGavern said. But "fall is what I'm most concerned about."

No change in regulations

In September, Wrighton said he hoped to negotiate with the Office of Naval Research, which audits MIT overhead expenses, to get a special exemption for UROP. But the working group thinks that an exemption is unlikely.

"There was a great deal of time spent in negotiating [the new regulations]. It doesn't seem like something people would want to open up and negotiate again," McGavern said. Congress and several federal agencies began designing the new regulations during the Bush Administration.

Merritt said the working group must work without assuming any changes will be forthcoming. Still, "There isn't any single solution to this. There have to be all kinds of efforts made to try to get a change in the [regulations] and ... exploring whether [they] can be reinterpreted or reapplied." Merritt said.

The working group does not see any easy solutions, though. "This isn't an instant-results problem. Short of $50 million in endowment, there is no easy answer," Chitaley said.

One solution would be reallocating MIT's unrestricted budget funds to cover UROP overhead costs. But, as Wrighton explained, giving more money to UROP is not a realistic solution, because it would mean taking money away from other areas of the academic budget.

Lobbying campaign

The UA forum on Monday night is intended to be an information session for students and faculty. "From that point on we'll try to coordinate a lobbying campaign," said UA President Hans C. Godfrey '93.

Chitaley said that students might be able to convince the government to change the regulations. "The time for community involvement is here," he said.

"If the [Office of Management and Budget] or ONR hears from students about something that really matters to them, it probably couldn't do any harm," McGavern said.