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MIT in Washington, DC

President Charles M. Vest is higher education’s champion on Capitol Hill, and he’s the university leader the government approaches first to head important task-force panels.

Four blocks north of the White House, MIT president Charles M. Vest walks through the lobby of the University Club-a Washington, DC, establishment where, for almost a century, members of Congress, journalists, and the so-called Washington power elite have gathered to exchange ideas. Vest is in town for the inaugural meeting of the Department of Energy’s Task Force on the Future of Science Programs, which he chairs. He has just enough time to grab a bowl of oatmeal before heading out to the department’s headquarters. As he makes his way toward the dining room, Bill Reilly, who was head of the Environmental Protection Agency during the administration of the first President Bush, stops to greet him. The two men smile, shake hands, exchange a few words, and carry on.

President Vest’s visit to Washington is not unusual, nor is Reilly’s greeting. For more than a decade, Vest has spent on average one day each month in the nation’s capital, where he has cultivated strong connections with members of Congress, White House staff, and federal agency officials. In Washington’s political circles, Vest’s name has become somewhat of a household word. He has chaired numerous government panels and task forces, including NASA’s review panel of the International Space Station and the National Nanotechnology Initiative’s task force. “Chuck is the first university president the government turns to, to chair important task forces,” says Deborah Wince-Smith, president of the Washington, DC-based Council on Competitiveness. Vest has served as a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology under both the Clinton and Bush administrations. And he has been instrumental in establishing educational forums in which congressional staff can learn more about science and technology. But Vest’s reputation in the city stems not from his desire to promote all that is MIT or to lobby for earmarked research funds. His mission has been much broader: to promote federal investment nationwide in university research in science and technology.

Fulfilling that mission has involved a range of efforts and strategies: meeting one-on-one with members of Congress and White House staff, tracking legislation, and forming coalitions that focus on the role universities play in fostering innovation and improving the nation’s economy. Through his leadership and influence-much of which he exerts behind the scenes-among policymakers, over the years Vest has helped thwart several proposed major cutbacks to federal funding for university research. “He has a tremendously keen grasp of the issues,” says Bill Richardson, CEO of the Kellogg Foundation and former president of Johns Hopkins University. “He is able to communicate extremely well and people trust him. That becomes a potent combination.”

“No other president has played as strong a role as Chuck Vest has,” says Nils Hasselmo, president of the Association of American Universities. Many university chancellors and presidents today are following Vest’s example. Fifteen years ago, universities relied on such organizations as the Association of American Universities to represent their interests in Washington, says Jack Crowley, MIT’s vice president for federal relations and director of the Washington office. Now, a considerable number of presidents and chancellors realize the value of establishing a presence in Washington. And while many universities maintain offices in the capital simply to lobby for their own institutions, increasing numbers of university leaders are pursuing a vision similar to Vest’s.

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.

Educating Washington

Adept at communicating complex ideas to lay audiences, Vest has focused a large part of his efforts on educating policymakers. “Few people in the White House or in Congress have an understanding of science and technology,” explains Lane. Vest’s position as university vice chairman for the Council on Competitiveness has helped him serve his broad mission of educating Washington. The Council, comprising corporate CEOs, university presidents, and labor leaders, advises government personnel on policy matters related to U.S. industrial competitiveness and technological innovation. In the early 1990s Vest and former Hewlett-Packard CEO and president John Young, chair of the council at the time, created a congressional forum on science and technology, following requests from Senator John Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) and Senator Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). The idea was that congressional “staff would become better informed,” Crowley says. “They would brief their members, and this would strengthen the debate in the House and the Senate.” The forums, which are sponsored by the Council on Competitiveness, remain a tradition to this day. When Congress is in session, 200 to 300 staffers meet for a monthly lunchtime briefing to hear from leading experts on a science and technology issue the staffers select.

For several years Vest has also invited senior congressional staff to MIT for science and technology seminars sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The congressional staff select topics for discussion, but in contrast to the monthly congressional forums, only two-dozen members come to campus for the two-day session. The seminars have covered such topics as global climate change and emerging defense technologies. This April the sessions will focus on transportation issues.

But the event that garnered the most congressional attention was the “Breakfast of Champions.” Held last summer, the breakfast honored 35 members of Congress who have received Champion of Science awards for having demonstrated strong support for federal investment in university research in science and engineering. The award was established in 1999 by the Science Coalition-an advocacy group of 60 public and private universities established in 1995 at the initiative of Vest and Neil Rudenstine, then president of Harvard University-to promote federal funding of university research in science and engineering.

With help from General Mills, the breakfast organizers were able to give each of the senators and representatives a personalized Wheaties box printed with his or her photograph. “It was a great success,” says Crowley. “It accomplished exactly what we wanted it to do in raising the profile of science in Congress.”

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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