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Vest Calls for Better Relations with Gov't

By Ramy Arnaout
News Editor

MIT must rework its relationship to industry and government in order to "address the challenges of a new era" successfully, said President Charles M. Vest in his annual report, which was released in October.

In the aftermath of the Cold War, traditional government support for basic academic research has abruptly and seriously eroded, Vest said. "The sense of partnership between government and universities has decayed dramatically."

This new rapport threatens the future of the flexibility and support needed for science to continue to serve society, Vest said.

"The past few years have seen a continuing attempt on the part of both Congress and the administration to shift substantial portions of the cost of conducting university research away from the federal sponsors of that research," Vest said.

Congress' new mood puts increasing pressure on MIT tuition, gift, and endowment revenues to foot the part of the bill for research, he said.

Threatened cut shows new mood

The gravity of the situation was underscored this summer in Congress, Vest said. A House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee passed a bill that threatened to cut the Department of Defense's $1.8 billion 1995 university research budget by more than half ["DoD Cut Threatens Research," July 20].

"The potential damage of [the cut] was imponderable," Vest said. DoD funding supports over 75 percent of MIT's electrical engineering research as well as about 50 percent of research in other critical fields such as mechanical engineering, computer science, and materials science and engineering, he said.

"Only at the 11th hour during a Senate-House conference was this cut modified, but we were still left with a destructive 14 percent cut - a $200 million reduction in funding for DoD sponsored research on our nation's campuses," Vest said. "This is not a stable way to conduct federal policy."

Such instances have prompted MIT to "work with great intensity to promote understanding of the issues by members of Congress and their staffs," Vest said in the report.

Government support of basic research is essential to the long-term success of universities and to the nation's future, Vest said. In addition, government, industry, and academia should work together to identify and set broad goals for areas critical to the well-being of the nation. Such areas include the environment, energy, transportation, telecommunications, and more livable cities, he said.

It "simply is too early" to tell how the major Republican congressional gains will impact MIT's ability to help develop long-term policy, Vest said later in the report. However, "the importance of education and research transcends party politics," he said.

Another fundamental goal of the Institute will be "preparing students to live, work, and exercise leadership in an increasingly international context," Vest said.

To this end, "our curricula are shifting to meet new needs, challenges, and opportunities," Vest said. "All MIT students now must learn cellular and molecular biology. Master's-level education in our Schools of Engineering and Management is being altered and integrated."

Rewriting contract with industry

"Industrial issues have become intellectually challenging and exciting from the perspective of faculty and students," Vest said. "Indeed, we need each other as ever before."

The end of the Cold War and the incredible expansion of global electronic communication have had a hand in producing intense competition among businesses, Vest said. The change presents significant opportunities for MIT, "which was founded to create a strong, even unique, relationship with industry.

"Researchers and engineers from industry and university faculty should spend significant time in each other's domains in order to undertake cooperative projects, both basic and applied," Vest said. While he noted that scientists might be averse to taking time off projects, Vest urged the MIT community to "get serious about this. Every other country in the world seems to encourage" such exchanges.

In addition, "MIT has taken a number of steps to ensure a good dialogue among faculty and industrial leaders and to complement the ongoing activities of our Industrial Liason Program," Vest said.