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MIT May Escape Federal Cutbacks

By Ramy A. Arnaout
Executive Editor

Although administrators remain cautious, it seems likely the Institute will escape the effects of Congressional cutbacks in this year's federal research budget cycle.

Though next year's funding levels will likely show a slight increase on this year's, "it is too soon to know what the outcome for '96 will be," said John C. Crowley, director of the MITWashington Office. "Congress and the Administration are locked in discussion as to how they will [reconcile] appropriations bills," he said.

The reason for the uncertainty is that Congressional committees have yet to reach an agreement on over $70 billion of research funding, nearly two weeks after the Oct. 1 budget-approval deadline.

Included in that sum are the budgets for the Departments of Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services (which contains the National Institutes of Health), and six other research agencies. Combined, these accounted for 75 percent of the Institute's research backing last year, Crowley said.

With $332 million in total research volume this financial year - up a percent or so each of the past couple of years - MIT is among the top four in research-and-development spending in the country, according to Dean for Research J. David Litster PhD '65 and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Until the Senate and House of Representatives versions of the bills are reconciled and signed by the President, research is being funded through a continuing resolution, a temporary spending agreement that will run out Nov. 13.

Congress argues over projects

Behind the delay is intense wrangling over what projects are worthy of funding, as Republicans aim for their goal of a balanced budget in seven years' time, Crowley said.

"The points of difference revolve around the federal intervention in applied research," Crowley said.

But the debate is among the parties as well as between them. Rep. Bob Walker (R-Penn.), who chairs the Science Committee, said recently in an interview with the journal Science that basic - not applied - research "is the mission of government when we talk about science."

Although Massachusetts' representation remains Democratic in the face of the Republican Congress, Crowley said MIT's representation remains strong. Representative Peter Torkildsen (R-Mass.) "has been particularly active on behalf of" Lincoln Laboratory and the Bates Linear Accelerator Center. "That's been helpful," Crowley said.

In June, the Science Committee reversed a subcommittee vote to save the accelerator from cancellation ["Committee Saves Bates' Funding," June 28], a decision partially due to Torkildsen's influence.

Plasma Fusion Center may suffer

Despite the likelihood that funding will rise slightly, there are trouble spots on campus.

"We have over at the Plasma Fusion Center a tokamak" - a toroidal nuclear device for heating gaseous plasma - "currently supported at $16 million a year. That machine is currently slated to shut down," Litster said. "Whether that will come about depends on how much of a budget the DoEreceives from Congress. So there are some potential problems lurking in the wings," he said.

Crowley projects that among the major agencies, only the NIH is likely to get a boost in funding as large as three percent.

Canceling the tokamak project would cause the loss of about 80 staff, and 20 graduate students students would lose their support. "So if that happens, it would be a disaster," Litster said.

"Funding for Lincoln appears to be holding up reasonably well, although in the conference agreement" - the legislative step preceding delivery to the president - "that was defeated; there was a reduction in the core funding," Crowley said. "It was cut but not terminated. Funding will almost certainly remain constrained both for universities and for Lincoln," Crowley said.

"Congress is busy trying to rethink everything it's doing. So it comes up with all kinds of ideas it floats." Some are outrageous, "but these get shot down" eventually, Litster said.

"We still don't know how it's all going to work out," he said. More specific predictions are hard to make. "We would have thought five or six years ago that we'd see our DoD sponsorship take a nose-dive," Litster said. "It actually went up."

"We're continuing to push Congress very hard in terms of both science and technology. So it's not over," Crowley said.