Making the Rounds
MIT opened its Washington office in May 1991, shortly after Vest’s inauguration as Institute president. At the time, relations between universities and the federal government were strained. The cold war, which had spurred federal funding for university research in science and technology, was over. There had been significant turnover in Congress, as well as the executive agencies of the government. “We lost a lot of people in government who were familiar with the system of higher education,” says Vest. That same year, an audit at Stanford University revealed several questionable expenses that had been billed as indirect costs for federally sponsored research. That scandal further eroded the government’s trust in universities. As Vest puts it, “The fabric of that tapestry-the historical relationship between the federal government and universities-had started fraying.”Vest opened the Washington office to rebuild that relationship. Crowley, who was vice president of the Association of American Universities at the time, came on board as the office’s director. Although the clear intent was that MIT would not lobby for funding for its own facilities or research programs, three weeks after the office opened, a new budget-cut proposal forced MIT to do just that. Congress had proposed a sharp cut in all the federally funded R&D centers-the Lincoln Laboratory among them. “There was an intense drill,” recalls Crowley, as he, Vest, and administrators from the Lincoln Laboratory tried to educate the defense appropriations subcommittees on the ramifications of imposing such a cut. With the help of former Congressman Chester Atkins (D-Mass.) and others, the lab was spared the cuts.
Meanwhile, Vest had begun making the rounds in Washington, talking to members of Congress, the administration, and various policy groups. At each visit, he presented a one-page handout that delivered a core set of messages. Chief among them were the importance of the federal role in university research and education and the dependence of the nation on universities for health, security, technological innovation, and a robust economy. People listened.
That same year NASA administrator Daniel Golden asked Vest to chair a review panel for the space station. The task was large, and time was scarce. Small working groups prepared sections of the final report. “At the end of the last meeting, the day before the report was due, the groups finished their work and adjourned, leaving the drafts in Vest’s hands,” says Crowley. “And I asked Chuck, What are you going to do with this?’ He said, I’m just going to have to put the final report together myself.’” According to Crowley, Vest spent 36 hours at NASA headquarters working with the committee staff to produce the report. “That night happened to also be his wedding anniversary,” Crowley says. Later, at a White House function, President Clinton approached Vest and thanked him and the panel for “saving the space station.” As a result of the panel’s work, the program adopted a streamlined management and became an international effort, with Russia joining the space station.
Clinton named Vest a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in 1994. That job led Vest to chair the task force on nanotechnology, which ultimately established the National Nanotechnology Initiative in 2000. Through that initiative, the federal government invests hundreds of millions of dollars every year in this burgeoning discipline that promises to revolutionize everything from electronics to medicine. Neal Lane, former director of the National Science Foundation, who worked with Vest on the initiative, says Vest is a great asset because “he knows so well how research and development is managed by all the different agencies.” Indeed, the initiative’s funds are distributed among 10 federal departments and independent agencies. Vest’s latest task-force chairmanship with the Department of Energy calls on the panel to reexamine the department’s mission and role in science and engineering research as it tries to keep up with the times.