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Wrighton Discusses UROP Cost Cutbacks, Concerns

Ramy A. Arnaout
Associate News Editor

The Undergraduate Association opened a dialogue last night concerning the changes in federal regulation that will effectively double the cost of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. Provost Mark S. Wrighton explained the dilemma facing MIT and encouraged students to express their concerns to their congressional representatives.

Under the new law, UROP will have to pay overhead costs to MIT -- about $2 million at current funding levels -- starting on July 1, Wrighton said. Overhead costs -- including physical plant services and library and administrative work -- are about $1.20 for every dollar spent on research, he said. Effectively, UROP students will be at least twice as expensive to hire, and the increase may force researchers to hire fewer UROP students, according to Wrighton.

Wrighton emphasized the importance of this change on the student populace, citing that 80 percent of students hold a UROP during their academic careers.

"I don't think people need to be told what a key part of MIT the UROP is," said Travis R. Merritt, dean for Undergraduate Academic Affairs.

"The problem we face at the moment is an unfortunate and ... unintended consequence of rule changes in the government," Wrighton said, commenting on the change.

In order to find possible solutions to the eminent funding dilemma, Wrighton formed a working group which will report its conclusions to him by May 1.

The members of the working group are James L. Elliot, professor of earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences and head of the group; Merritt; Mary Boyce, associate professor of Mechanical Engineering; Raajnish A. Chitaley '95, UA treasurer; and Professor J. Kim Vandiver, director of the Edgerton Center.

Problems raising money

The group will address a variety of options on how to find a solution to the budgeting crisis.

"Right now there are a lot of promising possibilities regarding the solution to the problem," Elliot said. "I think maybe we can put together a package that will minimize the impact."

One solution would be to add $2 million to the general operating budget and dedicate it to UROP. This is "is a possibility, but a very difficult one," Wrighton said, sighting MIT's budget deficit as the main problem.

Another idea, trimming $2 million from the $90 million budget for the schools of Science and Engineering, would be equally difficult, Wrighton said. Most UROP projects fall within these disciplines, but such a cut could be dangerous if MIT wishes to retain its excellence in those fields, he said.

Yet another option would use funds from MIT's endowment, but this would present even graver problems. Current Institute policy dictates that only about four-and-a-half cents on every dollar of endowment principal may be spent on MIT enterprises, according to Wrighton.

At this rate, MIT would need a $50 million endowment increase to cover the UROP bill, Wrighton said. Amassing this sum would be an "ambitious but somewhat unrealistic goal in the short run."

Instead, Wrighton looked toward gifts from alumni, private foundations, and government agencies. He specifically mentioned the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as possible donors. These agencies "have a major stake" in furthering research at MIT, he said.

The Institute is going to try all of these options, according to Merritt. At the same time, they will "do everything possible to get the government regulation reinterpreted."

However, the working group will "also behave as if there will be no new funding," Merritt added.

In addition to any action taken by the Institute, Wrighton encouraged students to write their congressional representatives in an attempt to renegotiate the regulation.

"I believe that communications like these ... will be important in providing an educational base on which these people can make informed decisions," Wrighton said.

Through well-organized letters and a coordinated effort, students will be able to inform congressmen and others of "not only the nature, but the magnitude of the problem," Wrighton said.