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DoD funding cut threatens research; bodes ill for future

By Ramy A. Arnaout

The near-passage of a congressional bill that would have cut Department of Defense funding for university research by more than half - from $1.47 billion to $547 million - sent waves of concern through MIT last summer and has left researchers uneasy in its wake.

The impact of the cut would have been catastrophic for the Institute, where last year's $61.6 million from the DoD accounted for nearly one-fifth of MIT's total federal research funding, according to the Office of Sponsored Programs.

"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 the Aug. 10 issue of Tech Talk.

While a strong lobbying effort by MIT helped reduce the House of Representatives' proposed cut to $200 million before the bill's final passage, researchers at MIT saw the event as a sign that difficult times may lie ahead for government funding of academic research here and at schools across the country.

"This is not a separate incident," said Paul E. Penfield Jr. ScD '60, head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. "This is an issue that will come back next year, and the next."

"I suspect that this is only the first shot" Congress will take at university research funding, said Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics Daniel E. Hastings PhD '80, associate head of research in the department. "What's going on is a very fundamental shift in the paradigm of what defense money is going for," he said.

Changing priorities

The near crisis last summer marked a major break with Cold War-era tradition. Since World War II, the military has devoted billions of dollars to university research in the name of national security, with the hope that the investment would eventually yield defense applications.

DoD money still forms the backbone of the nation's academic research in science and engineering: All told, the department funded 42 percent of all engineering research at universities last year, according to National Science Foundation figures. With that figure, the DoD was - and remains - the single largest backer of research in engineering fields.

But since the end of the Cold War, Washington has increasingly come to question the value of funding university research and the relative importance of research when compared to other government expenditures.

In pushing through the initial 63 percent funding cut in the House, former Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) said it was not designed to punish research.

Murtha, who chaired the appropriations subcommittee that came up with the cut, said the bill was geared toward rescuing defense: With the military cutbacks that have followed the end of the Cold War, the value of research simply pales before the long-term importance of defense and the military, he said.

This same doubt over the merit of research was one of the main reasons Congress decided to abandon the $10 billion Superconducting Super Collider in late 1993, although waste and political distrust of "big science" were also factors. "A number of people in the House [of Representatives] had the feeling that this kind of research was a luxury," said Institute Professor Jerome I. Friedman, recipient of the 1990 Nobel Prize in physics.

"Budgets are tight as the nation deals with its deficit, and the cutting comes in discretionary accounts that include most of the agencies that support research," said President Charles M. Vest.

Concern over the future

In his 1994 annual report, Vest viewed government's shifting priorities with concern. Despite an estimated 30 percent economic return on research investment, "the public and the Congress now increasingly question the value, priority, and relevance of this investment.

"The sense of partnership between government and universities has decayed dramatically" since the Cold War, Vest said. Safeguarding the future of research funding "requires that we establish a sense of common purpose," he said.

To that end, MIT has begun to work "with great intensity to promote understanding of the issues by members of Congress and their staffs" in response to the summer's funding cut, Vest said.

"I think the burden is on MIT and on other research institutions to educate the new Congress and the public and the administration" as to the importance of funding university research, said Ronald P. Suduiko, assistant to the president for government and community relations.

"Much of the change is related directly or indirectly to the shift from military security to economic security as the dominant national concern," Vest said earlier this week.

"We can't take for granted anymore that people in Washington or the public in general understand us for what we do," Suduiko said. If Congress proposes something and hears no protest, it can't be blamed for going through with a cut, he said.