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New Challenges

Having spent his first eight years in Washington cultivating relationships and networks within the Clinton administration, Vest found himself starting all over again after the 2000 elections. But his reputation as a leader helped him establish new relationships with the Bush administration. Crowley recalls that after the inauguration, between February and April, Vest visited the White House two or three times. “Over those visits he saw virtually every new White House official,” says Crowley. “In each meeting, he made the national case for sustained federal investment in research and education.”

A key item on Vest’s current agenda is the need to increase federal funding for the physical and engineering sciences. Over the last 30 years, investment in the life sciences has risen steadily: the Bush administration is committed to completing a five-year doubling of the National Institutes of Health budget begun by Congress four years ago. However, investment in the physical sciences and engineering has either remained flat or, in some areas, declined. “But the life sciences and physical sciences are more integrated than ever,” says Vest. The life sciences depend on engineers to develop new technologies for health care. Similarly, engineers are increasingly relying on biology to create new materials for electronic and computing devices. Vest’s efforts in this area may be paying off. Last December Congress passed and the president signed the National Science Foundation Authorization Act, which calls for doubling NSF’s budget over the next five years.

Although Vest and other university presidents have improved relations with the federal government over the last decade, a new source of tension threatens once again to put universities and the government at odds. Currently, the biggest challenge facing Vest and his colleagues is the government’s proposed response to the September 11 attacks. Although not a single law has been passed, administration proposals reported to be currently under consideration could have an enormous impact on university research. Such proposals include barring students from certain countries access to specific types of university-based research. Another proposal would control the publication of research deemed “sensitive but unclassified.” As this article was going to press, details on these proposals had not been released.

Over the years as president of MIT, Vest has tried to avoid promoting policy. Yet “sometimes, I’ve had to cross the line,” he says. “Particularly right now.” Last October he wrote an op-ed piece for the Washington Times in which he advocated openness in scientific research and reminded readers of the value in recruiting talented students and scholars from around the world. A week later, Institute Professor Sheila Widnall ‘60, SM ‘61, ScD ‘64, a former secretary of the Air Force, testified before the House Science Committee and warned that labeling research as “sensitive but unclassified” would not work. “It’s critically important that we keep people talking,” Vest agrees. Vest has continued to keep that dialogue moving in the hope that he and others might sway the government, but he is also realistic. “If there is another horrific incident like September 11, all bets are off.”

Vest has spent more than a decade educating Washington on the role universities play in the economy and national security, but the war on terrorism has, in many ways, done more than anything else to highlight that role. It has forced policymakers to ponder the system of higher education, its significance, its history, and the founding principles that have guided its success. Vest is uncomfortable with the proposed security measures, but perhaps he can find some comfort in the fact that these measures have brought attention to a system he has long made his cause.

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