The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 69.0°F | Overcast

Federal funding cuts -- Institute predicts difficult but bearable times ahead

million in direct federal funding each year. "This has been a very unusual year," said MITWashington Office Director John C. Crowley. "It's impossible to predict how this budget [debate] will conclude."

But after the chaos of 1995, administrators predict MIT's formidable research reputation will help it avoid drastic cuts. Still, they say, the Institute will not only have to adapt to dwindling funds, especially for graduate training, but continue to adapt its educational program around the shifting needs of the country.

Amidst uncertainty, hope

Overall, the budget appropriations battles in the capitol left MIT relatively unscathed. Most of Institute's primary donor agencies, including the Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health, have been funded through to the end of this year.

However, a few are still "subject to the budget process - including the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and NASA.

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."

But amidst this uncertainty and turbulence lies a glimmer of hope. "Relative to everything else within discretionary spending, Republican majorities have identified university research as a priority," Crowley said. "They have attempted to accord it special treatment, while trying to squeeze other things."

"Despite the enormously difficult political pressures, [I sense a] recognition of the long term value of university research, and need for stability in the system. This is broadly recognized by the leadership in Congress and Senate," Crowley said.

Like the status of the budget in 1995, the prognosis is unclear."Next year's prospects are still unpredictable," Crowley said. "The seven-year balanced budget plan could inflict strong cuts in university research, [to the extent that even Congress's] priorities will be sharply reduced."

If one thing is certain, though, it is that "MIT will have to work a lot harder to keep its funding level where it is," said Office of Sponsored Programs Director Julie T. Norris.

MIT's funding may depend on its record

MIT is one of many institutions trying to project what will happen if the Republican seven-year balanced budget plan goes through. When the American Association of Universities projected the effects of the proposed budget cuts on research programs, the feeling was that research programs overall would be cut about 32 percent in the budget-balancing process. This would be about an $81 million cut for MIT, Norris said.

But Norris does not believe that the loss will be this drastic, because when it comes to federal research, MIT is anything but an average institution. The cuts will not be distributed equally among all places of research, she said.

As always, funding is given first to those places doing the best work. The quality of MIT will keep it above water, even if it means more suffering for others, Norris said. And recent history bears that view out: In the past few years, MIT research expenditures have indeed been maintained above those of other leading research institutions.

If the Institute "were to lose [$81 million] MIT would be a different kind of institution," Norris said. The Institute would see "less research, [which] translates to fewer students. The equipment faculty use probably wouldn't be replaced with new state of the art equipment."

"The government, in looking at savings, tends to look less at reduction of costs [and more at] the transfer of those costs to an institution," Norris said. The Institute will probably see the transfer of a lot of research's administration costs to the institutions.

Graduate students might not be so lucky

But even the strength of MIT's record may not be enough to save it from cuts to graduate programs, say administrators and researchers alike.

"I fear that the government attitude may be changing for providing support for graduate students," Norris said. The trend in graduate funding reflects the preference in getting research done by an employee over training a student, Norris said. "I see the real future in training of the students. I remain convinced that MIT will stay very competitive - will continue to be great research institution" of the next century.

"It is clear that the budget cuts will have an impact" on the Graduate School, said Graduate School Dean J. David Litster Ph.D. '65. The cuts will reduce the number of graduate students.

"So far in most of the hard sciences and engineering, graduate students get supported," Litster said. But under the cuts, fewer students would be supported. Although MIT's reputation attracts students, they will decide based on whether they can get support.

While the exact outcome of research funding is uncertain, the impact of the funding cuts on MIT as a whole and on the Graduate School can already be assessed. "One thing will clearly happen, there will be a big impact on our TAs," Litster said. MIT will "probably no longer be able to take the tuition we charge as a fringe benefit." That would raise the cost of the graduate research assistant contract substantially."

Future lies in multidisciplinary programs

All the economic and political changes stress the need to look elsewhere for funds. Traditionally researches look toward agencies like the NSF, NIH, DOE, and the Department of Defense for funding, Norris said. The Institute now needs to expand this base and search for more non-traditional funding. In addition, there remains a need "to look at new basic research funding, at corporate support for developing programs, at foundations."

Part of looking elsewhere will involve re-aligning MIT's educational mission to fit national views. To this end, Dean of the School of Engineering Robert A. Brown believes the proliferation of more professional programs is just what MIT needs.

Degree programs like the newly created Program in System Design and Management are "creating new kinds of masters degrees geared more toward people going into industry."

MIT will see that "as these programs develop there becomes more of a demand for those who want to go to industry [and] desire more professional training," Brown said.

"The agencies are looking at multi- and interdepartmental research, [as well as] targeted research that meets national needs," Norris said. There has been a been a "big push across the country for programs that tie research to national industry, and MIT has been a leader in this." That usefulness helps net funding.

What the outcome of federal budget tightening and MIT's response will be for the Institute in 1996 is still unclear. "It is hard to predict where we are going to end up," Litster said. "My guess is that things are not going to be a disaster, as the most pessimistic people will tell you, but they are going to be difficult. We can adjust to changes as long as they don't happen too rapidly. If things happen slowly enough, we can figure out ways around them."