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Budget Can't Be Cut Vest Tells Press Club

By Eva Moy
Staff Reporter

Proposed federal budget cuts could affect not only university education and research, but industry and the competitiveness of the United States, President Charles M. Vest warned in a July 18 address to the National Press Club.

"In the current debate, many seem unwilling or unable to retain, let alone enhance, our national excellence in science and advanced education," Vest said to an audience that included Presidential Science Adviser John Gibbons and former Secretary of Energy Admiral James Watkins. "Instead of pursuing our endless opportunities, we are in danger of drifting toward mediocrity," Vest said.

"We live in an age in which knowledge holds the key to our security, welfare and standard of living, an age in which technological leadership will determine who wins the next round of global competitionŠ and the jobs and profits that come from itŠ an age in which events move so rapidly that almost 80 percent of the computer industry's revenue from products that did not even exist two years ago," Vest said.

"The cornerstone of our era-the information era-is education," Vest continued. "Today, America's system of higher education and research is the best in the world. Period. But will it be the world's standard of excellence 10 years from now? If the nation is to be preeminent a decade hence, if we are not only to compete but lead, then we must sustain these unique American institutions."

"Congressional hearings and media exposésŠ have tarnished the image of universities," Vest said. And while "most of the real issues have long since been addressedŠ a residue of misunderstanding and cynicism remains."

Academia is not the only group that would like that sentiment reversed, Vest said. The public is in fact on universities' side: Citing recent poll data, Vest said that nearly 70 percent of the American public thinks it is very important for the government to support research, 90 percent want the country to maintain its position as a leader in medical research, and 73 percent are willing to pay higher taxes to support more medical research.

Bills could hurt MIT

Vest's speech comes as Congress discusses deep cuts in research funding. If passed, cuts set forth in 13 or so spending bills now under debate "would unravel bedrock education, health, and environmental programs," President Clinton said in yesterday's Boston Globe. Most of the bills are still at the committee stage in both houses, and must be squared and passed by both houses by October.

The cuts would impact research allocations, according to Tobin L. Smith, Legislative Assistant in the MIT Washington Office. Although the big programs at MIT are not specifically targeted, cuts will affect large and small research funding overall, Smith said. "What we're fighting is this overwhelming drive [by the new members of Congress] to cut and slash the budget."

Some cuts would affect universities' education programs through reductions in federal student financial aid. "Cutting student aid will force students either to forgo college or to borrow more money under more costly terms," said a Washington office release.

But given the mood in Congress, university research is no less at risk than education. Graduate and professional students are most threatened by such cuts, Smith said. In one case, the proposed elimination of school loan interest subsidies, people who opt to continue on to graduate school would have to pay more interest over a longer period of time than if they chose to work in industry, he said.

For schools like MIT, the close relationship between research and education would make budget cuts especially harsh. Nearly 80 percent of MIT undergraduates participate in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, Vest said in his address. "Their learning experience and their substantive contributions to research are simply astounding."

Vest is the only academic scheduled to speak this year at the club, which hosts speakers three times each week.