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MIT Research Needs More Public Relations

Column by Thomas R. Karlo
Contributing Editor

Preaching to the choir isn't always a bad thing. President Charles M. Vest's Report of the President for the Academic Year 1995-96 had some interesting things to say about the future of the nation and this university. It was neither surprising nor controversial in its argument for more spending on research. But Vest failed to introduce any new concepts in his report or to try to broaden the issue of science research and education in the United States.

Vest argues that spending on science research and education is a necessary part of maintaining the nation's status as a world leader. I'm sure lots of you here at MIT were really stunned by that assertion. Even in the outside world I doubt many would argue that such spending is unnecessary, but it is also only one area of spending among the many competing for government dollars. As Vest notes, it is hard to spend on the future when we are so much in debt right now.

In a time of budget cutting, science spending is often one of the first casualties. With an increasing amount of MIT funding coming from civilian research rather than defense work, we have become increasingly vulnerable to cuts in spending. In the past, projects funded from the gigantic defense budget were allocated money by long-term military officers or administrators. Today, we are exposed to cutting of funding each time a new yearly budget is created.

Vest is right in bemoaning the short attention span of the United States with respect to science funding. But complaining doesn't help. There are no longer limitless government expenditures to fund research, and politicians now base much of their campaigns on their promises to cut taxes. When was the last time you heard a candidate promise to fund the cure for a disease? Unfortunately, there is currently little incentive for politicians to fund science research. Even a wildly successful research project contributes nothing to the re-election campaign of those who voted to spend taxpayer money on it.

What can MIT do about this? How can we give politicians an incentive to fund projects that are so important to us? We need to try to reach out to voters and increase awareness of why it is so important to spend their hard-earned money on our projects. American taxpayers spend a tremendous amount of their lives working to pay for the government and to pay for our labs and research. We shouldn't expect them to give us their money without some justification.

For too long the scientific community has asked for funding from the rest of the nation without expecting them to understand what we do or why we do it. While secrecy may be acceptable when you're working on a project for the Defense Department, when it's not necessary it simply alienates taxpayers from science. We need to be actively working to educate and enlighten the rest of the nation about the importance of scientific research.

We can do this at several levels. Many students and faculty at MIT have volunteered their time to explain their work or to teach science to elementary and high school students. This work is valuable in helping increase the receptiveness of the community at large to science and the need for long-term science research.

Using the popular media to communicate the nature of our work also helps us come budget time. I remember listening to Professor of Biology Eric Lander discuss the Human Genome Project last year on a radio show broadcast by WBUR. In his hour of talking about his project and discussing it with callers, I'm sure he won the support of a tremendous number of listeners. I know the show increased my support of the project.

Yes, Lander did have to take valuable research time to promote his project. But I would assert that the time was better spent then it would have been begging politicians for funding. If the Human Genome Project ever is at risk of losing funding, it will have many more voters out there that understand it and support it than most other projects. Also, they won't just be people within the science community. They'll be voters from diverse backgrounds that want the project to continue because they understand how and why their tax money is being spent. Imagine if every project could get that kind of support.

MIT promotes the participation of its faculty and students in commercial projects with outside companies. Perhaps it's time we considered actively promoting community service and the promotion of science to popular audiences. While commercial work might pay off for the individuals who do it, efforts to promote science to the general public would pay off for all of us. By making relating to the public a critical component of scientific research, MIT and Vest can lead the way to a time when science funding is considered a critical issue among American voters.