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Inside MIT...s D.C. Office, the Priority Is Policy

By Benjamin P. Gleitzman



Beyond the sleepless nights, legendary hacks, and uniquely geeky reputation, MIT is a thriving institution whose success is tied directly to funding for research allocated at the national level.

Just ask Joseph Roy-Mayhew ’08, whose bioengineering lab at MIT lost funding from the National Institutes of Health midway through his freshman year. “The graduate students were running around trying to find funding instead of pursuing their research,” said Roy-Mayhew.

Jessica H. Liao, a graduate student in Materials Science and Engineering, received a three-year National Science Foundation and NASA co-grant whose two-year portion was not renewed because of funding cuts at NASA’s Department of Biology.

Both Roy-Mayhew and Liao came to Washington this spring break along with other students from MIT for Congressional Visits Day, held March 28 and 29. Other universities including Johns Hopkins, Virginia Tech, and Iowa State University

The Visits Days, which began in 1994, gather over 300 scientists, engineers, and students from companies, colleges, and various advocacy organizations. The goal is to convince representatives in Washington of the importance of research and development funding for science and technology.

The MIT Washington Office, which has offered its support at the Visits Day for several years, hosted a group of graduate students in materials science and underclassmen from the MIT Washington Summer Internship Program who pitched their case to elected officials on Capitol Hill for increased R&D funding.

It is headed by recently appointed Director William B. Bonvillian, who sponsors events such as the Visits Day to rally support for issues of importance to the MIT community. As a liaison between the MIT campus and the Capitol, the Washington Office provides a voice in Washington and a link for advocates.

“MIT has five big science agencies that we depend on,” said Bonvillian: the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense, Department of Energy Office of Science, NSF, and NASA.

Congressional Visits Day is an opportunity for the science community to push innovation legislation,” said Bonvillian, who pointed to organization, as seen in the areas of IT and the life sciences, as a powerful factor contributing to economic growth and a model for further science funding.

“The life sciences are an advocacy success story,” said Bonvillian, who has seen funding for life sciences jump dramatically since 1996 while funding for engineering and the physical sciences has remained stagnant or decreased.

Changes In Washington

A major focus of this year’s Visits Day is innovation and competitiveness, buzzwords in Washington thanks to the work of many. “This is a big change,” said Bonvillian, “it’s the first time Congress has considered major competitiveness legislation since 1987.”

In his State of the Union speech this year, President Bush made a key pledge to double funding for the DOE, NSF, and the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology over the next 10 years, as outlined in his proposed “American Competitiveness Initiative.”

But Bush’s proposed budget would also cut funding for DOD Basic Research by 3.3 percent, cut DOD Applied Research by 13.4 percent, freeze the NIH budget, and boost NASA funding by only 1 percent in the midst of manned space and science capital programs that will likely force a cut in spending.

The Council on Competitiveness, a Washington based group including industry and academic leaders such as MIT President Susan Hockfield on its Executive Committee issued a large report in December 2004 entitled the “National Innovation Initiative Report” which later became the basis for the Senate’s proposed National Innovation Act.

The report made recommendations to counter the possibility of the United States being outperformed and overtaken by other countries in mathematics, science, and technology, by focusing on strengthening research investment, increasing science and technology talent through grants, and developing an innovation infrastructure.

According to the report, the U.S. faces a “potential inflection point in facing new realities that pose significant challenges to our global innovation leadership.” In other words, according to an official at Bell Labs attending Visits Day, “The nation has lost its edge.”

“The U.S. has switched to an innovation economy,” said Bonvillian during a speech to the Visits Day audience. With numerous bills being proposed in Washington, MIT has a vested interest in making sure R&D funding remains a priority. “Science and technology knowledge is becoming like basic literacy,” said Bonvillian.

The process has already begun, according to presentations in Washington. The National Academies of Science report entitled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” which contained recommendations to help the U.S. maintain its competitive edge in science and technology, was implemented as the Protecting America’s Competitive Edge Act with over 70 bipartisan Senate co-sponsors as well as backing by Lockheed Martin, Intel, IBM, SIA, and the Council on Competitiveness.

The Future of Research

Japan, China, and India are now able to compete, and in some cases overwhelm, the U.S. in math and science knowledge, according to David Goldston, Chief of Staff of the House Science Committee. “There is almost no one who doesn’t think science is a good investment. There just needs to be a unified effort in the community [to push innovation legislation],” added Goldston.

According to competitiveness indicators cited by the National Academies of Sciences report, the future of math and science education on the K-12 level already looks grim. As many as one-third of fourth graders and one-fifth of eighth graders lacked the competence to perform even basic mathematical computations, and fewer than one-third of US fourth grade and eighth grade students performed above a level called “proficient” in mathematics. In 2000, 93 percent of students in grades 5–9 were taught physical science by a teacher lacking a major or certification in the physical sciences.

Higher education numbers are even less reassuring. The amount invested annually by the US federal government in research in the physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering combined is outpaced by the annual increase in health care costs incurred every 20 days.

“We’ve got a window of legislative opportunity that I haven’t seen in 10 years for science and technology,” said Bonvillian. “The problem is it takes three to tango — the House [of Representatives], the Senate, and the White House. The big problem we have now is with the House,” which is expected to be in session less than 60 more days this year, the shortest Congressional calendar in many years.

A Tangible Impact

With so many issues flying around Washington, the MIT D.C. Office must also deal with other vested interests, such as international visas and immigration. After 9/11 “MIT, other universities, and scientific societies worked closely with the Bush Administration to reduce the delays in issuing visas from months of waiting to weeks,” said Jason Van Wey, associate director of the office. As a result of these efforts, “the process has greatly improved.”

“We are a small office so we work where MIT has the most added value,” added Van Wey. In constant connection with Institute officials and receiving President Hockfield on a monthly basis, the MIT D.C. Office is the Institute’s Swiss army knife in Washington. “We help arrange meetings for student and advocacy groups. There are always new issues and no two days have been the same,” said Van Wey.

While optimism remains high with Massachusetts representatives in regard to R&D funding bills, Bonvillian said that the public must be educated and a business-university alliance cemented for these proposed bills to have any meaningful effect.

During Bush’s State of the Union address, a speech usually choked with rounds of applause, there was almost no response to the President’s announcement of the American Competitive Initiative. Even so, the acknowledged link between research and economic growth is important, says Bonvillian.

“We’ve been trying to make the R&D tax credit permanent for years and now it looks like we’ll be able to do it,” said one Congressional staffer to a member of the Massachusetts delegation in a meeting with the MIT students.

“We can find success as long as we continue to innovate and grow — not just the IBMs but also on the grass roots level,” said another staffer to a Massachusetts Congressman. “We need to focus on innovation, competitiveness, and basic research,” he added.

Other issues of concern to the MIT community that are being tackled in Washington are higher education accountability and student loan reform, both in various stages of discussion and voting.

With hundreds of award-winning scientists and engineers roaming the infinite corridors of MIT it is easy to overlook policy changes being developed in the nation’s capital. The MIT Washington Office is a branch of the Institute that students rarely see but one whose influence is felt by professors and students alike.