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MIT Research Support Assured With Continued Federal Funding

By Orli G. Bahcall

The federal agencies and programs that support MIT research received continued funding Friday as Congress and President Clinton averted a third government shutdown and signed a continuing resolution to fund the agencies without appropriations until March 15.

Institute researchers have been awaiting progress on the funding question in relation to several agencies, including the National Science Foundation,NASA, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

"The research programs that NSF funds are of critical national importance," said Director of the Office of Sponsored Programs Julie T. Norris. "NSF is one of the agencies whose mission is to support basic research in universities."

NSF and NASA each contribute close to $40 million annually in research support to MIT.

However, these agencies are still without a fiscal year 1996 budget and are "subject to the budget process. This means they could suffer interruptions of funding" at any time, said Director of the MIT Washington Office John C. Crowley.

Researchers who have grants from agencies not covered in the continuing resolution can continue to spend money, since there is a three-month leeway granted on awarding of these research funds Norris said.

MIT assumes risk for delay

The Institute assumes the risk for research funds that are delayed by federal budget wrangling or do not come through. "We can absorb the impact [of the delayed funding] better than smaller schools, " Norris said.

"I have talked to some [smaller schools] in the past couple of weeks, and they are more worried," Norris said. They have to consider laying off students since they "literally do not have the cash" to take the risk of pre-funding. MIT's position, she said, is that "we will not lay off anyone for this [reason]."

"We support people. Of course, if we do not get the payments, we will have a real problem, but every big institution is doing the same thing," Norris said. "Now we are just running the risk more than usual."

The Office of Sponsored Programs is dealing with this situation "by pre-funding those projects we know have a good chance" of being funded, she said. "We have a good track record on getting money."

Fewer guarantees are asked from the federal agencies simply because during the recent shutdowns, there was no one to contact, Norris said. "If we can't get the information, we assume that we have to take on the risk."

Agencies may have to bar awards

The programs of the NSF, NASA, and the EPA received funding at the levels specified during the latest House-Senate conferences of the appropriations bills.

These agencies may now have to "bar the award of new funds for proposals that have been prepared for the next round," Crowley said. "This will disrupt support for graduate research and faculty trying to establish their research. Those programs interrupted will have no funds to pursue their research."

Earlier this month, appropriations bills were signed that funded other sponsors of science research, including the National Institutes of Health. "The NIH was quickly rescued and funded for the balance of the year. Congress in fact granted more than they had requested. This will allow NIH to operate "with stability and predictability," Crowley said.

While federal research and development is fairing better than many had expected earlier in the year, there is still a great amount of uncertainty as the budget negotiations continue, he said.

"I am hopeful, [but] the reality is less money in the future. MIT will have to work a lot harder to keep its funding level where it is," Norris said.