Proposed federal budget cuts are threatening to undermine this nation's tradition of spectacular successes in science and technology, MIT President Charles M. Vest warned today (July 18) in a speech to the National Press Club.
"Under current budget scenarios, we are in danger of disinvesting in our future. The cost of doing so. and of drifting toward mediocrity in science, technology, and advanced education is simply too great to pay.
"We must regain our vision, our confidence, and our will to excel," he said.
President Vest referred to a recent joint statement by chief executive officers of 16 major U.S. corporations which said: "Imagine life without polio vaccines and heart pacemakers. Or digital computers. Or municipal water purification systems. Or space-based weather forecasting. Or advanced cancer therapies. Or jet airliners. Or disease-resistant grains and vegetables. Or cardiopulmonary resuscitation."
"That. and much, much more. is what science and technology-and our nation's universities-have made possible. But today, rather than building upon this success, we are about to undermine it," he said.
"We live in an age in which knowledge holds the key to our security, welfare and standard of living, an age in which technological leadership will determine who wins the next round of global competition. and the jobs and profits that come from it. an age in which events move so rapidly that almost 80 percent of the computer industry's revenues come from products that did not even exist two years ago.
"The cornerstone of our era-the information era-is education. Today, America's system of higher education and research is the best in the world. Period. But will it be the world's standard of excellence ten years from now? If the nation is to be preeminent a decade hence, if we are not only to compete but lead, then we must sustain these unique American institutions."
Dr. Vest is the only academic scheduled to address the press club this year. The club selects speakers for each of its meetings, about three a week. C-Span usually broadcasts the talks and is expected to carry Dr. Vest's remarks later this month. Many National Public Radio Stations also broadcast the press club talks on a delayed basis.
Those in the audience for Dr. Vest's talk included Presidential Science Adviser John Gibbons and Admiral James Watkins, former secretary of energy.
Dr. Vest noted that the Congress proposes to reduce the budget for civilian research and development by more than one-third. And he added, "The outlook is no better in the administration's new budget proposal." Decisions about how to deal with the budget deficit, however, "have to be based on a vision of the future and on an understanding of what hangs in the balance."
Emphasizing the point first made by famed scientist and presidential science adviser Vannevar Bush 50 years ago-in a report entitled "Science: The Endless Frontier"-that research and development is not a cost but an investment in the quality of life, health, and welfare of the American people, Dr. Vest stated:
"Is a one-third reduction in civilian research and development really a savings?," he asked. "Or is it a body blow to our national innovation system, our future competitiveness, and our leadership?"
"In the current debate," he said, "we seem unwilling or unable to retain, let alone enhance, our national excellence in science and advanced education. Instead of pursuing our endless opportunities, we are in danger of drifting toward mediocrity."
Dr. Vest noted that universities and the federal government once had "a broadly shared sense of the benefits to be derived from investing in education and research. and a shared commitment to the future."
"This commitment is rapidly fading. Although leaders in both parties and in both branches of government are struggling to retain it, it is fading. Today, the future has no organized political constituency."
Dr. Vest said the erstwhile partnership has been "frayed" since the 1980s "by a steady onslaught of policy and budget instability, rule changes, investigations, and deepening distrust." Media exposes and Congressional hearings on the reimbursement of the costs of federally sponsored research have damaged the credibility of universities, and while most of the real problems have been corrected, a residue of cynicism remains, he said.
The debate on future federal role and responsibility for university research and education in science and technology, Dr. Vest said, transcends politics. The issue is whether Washington decision-makers "have the political will and the vision to serve society's long-term need for new knowledge, new technologies, and, above all, for superbly educated young men and women."
"Many Americans have long been concerned that we were mortgaging our children's future with ever-increasing federal budget deficits," Dr. Vest added. "We must not, however, foreclose on their future by failing to invest in their education, and in the research that will be the basis of their progress. We must be wise enough to balance our priorities, with both the present and the future in mind."
Dr. Vest said that universities must do their part, by increasing productivity, becoming more cost effective, and looking more toward specialization. In this latter regard, Dr. Vest said that each college and university "should focus on what it does best. There is not enough money for every institution to do everything," he said. "We need institutional differentiation. . . Across-the-board reductions may be politically palatable, but they are likely to produce mediocrity. We need to make tough judgment calls and support the most effective programs."
Dr. Vest said, "We all have the responsibility to become trustees and guardians of our collective future"-university leaders, industry leaders, public policy makers and journalists. Public policy makers need to take the long view. And, yes, the media have a critical role to play. by discussing the importance of these issues and by elevating the national debate."
"We now must have the foresight and wisdom to turn our intellectual powers to solving the problems of a new age. We must have the will to sustain our economic security, eradicate the scourge of disease, create the jobs of tomorrow, lift the shadow of ignorance, and heal the earth's environment.
"Meeting these challenges will require vision, confidence, and the will to excel. And it will require us to continue exploring the frontiers of the unknown. For the key to a vibrant future lies more in what we do not know, than in what we do know. We must sustain excellence in research and advanced education."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on July 19, 1995.