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Attendees at last week's faculty meeting unanimously approved a new master's degree program in geosystems and heard updates about federal research funding and on SAP, MIT's new financial system.
SAP Release 3, which became the Institute's accounting system of record in September, has had some unanticipated problems in the early going, said Professor James R. Bruce, vice president for information systems. He detailed the history of the system's selection and implementation, augmenting information detailed by Glenn P. Strehle, vice president for finance and treasurer, in a recent letter to faculty and some administrators (see page 5).
The need for a major update in MIT's accounting system-the first in several decades-became obvious by summer 1994. "What existed then was a collection of minimally coupled, separate applications, mostly operating on different computers" and very little ability to track commitments for purchased goods and services, Professor Bruce said.
SAP's system was deemed to be the best solution, though MIT staff recognized at the outset that there were "significant gaps between [the] respective worldviews" of the Institute and the vendor, whose product was more tailored to a corporate rather than a university setting. These differences lay in the areas of access control and security, the fund accounting system used by universities, and methods for allocating employee benefits and overhead charges to accounts.
The package was modified to conform to MIT's needs, but further differences in approach later became apparent, Professor Bruce said. One has to do with purchasing authority. "Today we are able to limit purchasing authority to only materials and services items, and then to not more than $500 on a single requisition." As originally configured, however, SAP does not place such restrictions on a person's purchasing authority once he or she is authorized to use a given account.
Another problem concerns the visibility of transaction data, such as the line-item detail on requisitions, to all authorized users of the SAP system, not just to controllers of a given account. These complex policy issues are being carefully reviewed, Professor Bruce said.
Once the system is further reconfigured, it will be introduced as pilots in a few of MIT's units. The possibility of providing some limited functions of the system to all departments, labs and centers before the full system is deployed is also being considered, he said.
In reviewing the federal research funding situation, President Vest remarked that the current fiscal 1997 budget "actually came out better than anyone had predicted at the beginning of the year." Some areas showed increases; for example, the NIH budget "was the good news of the year" with a 6.9 percent funding increase compared to fiscal 1996, he said.
The budget figure for the NSF also increased, but by only 1.6 percent, or less than the rate of inflation, Dr. Vest noted. Funding for research and related activities at NSF was up about 5 percent, but the line item for Department of Defense basic research dropped by 1.7 percent.
"There are trends in the Department of Energy that are troubling," Dr. Vest said, referring to a 4.8 percent cut in fusion research spending and a decline of almost 19 percent for basic energy science. Funding for NASA also declined by 1.4 percent, though spending for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) rose by 3.2 percent.
Student financial aid programs saw large increases; funding for Pell and Perkins Grants rose by 21 percent and 58 percent respectively, while work/study funding increased by 35 percent. However, these programs are most likely "the recipients of election-year largesse," Dr. Vest said, adding that he would be "truly astounded" if this trend continues into next year.
More sobering is the continued expectation for significant long-term decline in support, he said. Between the 1995 and 2002 fiscal years, non-defense research spending is still expected to drop by about 20 percent. "This is a little bit better than what we were talking about two years ago, but only by about 5 percent. The downward slope will continue unless we are more effective as a community in making our case to the public and in Washington." He urged faculty members to "continue to speak out about research and education as investments in the future, not simply as costs to be met."
The Master's of Science degree program administered by the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, which was discussed at the October faculty meeting, was unanimously approved.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 4, 1996.