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President Charles M. Vest urged a Congressional subcommittee last Thursday (April 10) to "strengthen the small but essential" Department of Defense university research budgets "that will provide for future technological leadership and military security."
Speaking at a House Subcommittee on Acquisition and Technology hearing on science and technology research funding, Dr. Vest said, "I believe that our nation's future military security, economic strength and quality of life depend in large measure on research, education and innovation.
"Since the end of World War II, the Department of Defense has provided critically important underpinnings of the nation's scientific and technological leadership. This has been done for the purpose of insuring a defense and war fighting capability second to none. It has also paid enormous dividends to our society as a whole. US military operations today and in the future require that we act within an increasingly complex and dangerous world. It is essential that we be at the technological forefront.
"Our current leadership derives from investments that have been made in research and advanced education over the last 50 years. Examination of today's military equipment and defense systems shows that they derive in very large measure from DOD-sponsored basic research, the largest fraction of which has been conducted in our universities," Dr. Vest said.
"The fruits of such university-based research include phased array radar for ballistic missile defense, semiconductor devices for high-performance detectors, lasers for precision guidance systems, precision atomic clocks that make the Global Positioning System possible, stealth design technology, fly-by-wire aircraft controls, high-performance gas turbine engines, lightweight composite structural materials, numerical simulation of aerodynamics of missiles and aircraft, and high-strength steels for ship construction. The Internet, and, arguably, the entire computer and digital information technology industry, grew primarily from DOD-supported university research.
"Not only does the DOD R&D budget fund extremely important research, it does double duty: those same funds now support the education of more than 8,000 graduate students working on those research projects. They are the next generation of engineers and scientists, whose expertise and leadership will be essential both to our industries and our military establishment.
"DOD funding for basic research has declined in purchasing power by 30 percent over the past 30 years. In real terms, DOD research has been cut by $350 million in the last five years. The decline just since 1994 has been 10 percent."
Dr. Vest said the total fiscal 1998 DOD budget request for university research is about $1.2 billion, "just 3 percent of the total request for RDT&E."
The most recent budget projections by the American Association for the Advancement of Science show a decline in total Defense R&D of nearly 20 percent in constant dollars by 2002--a cut nearly twice that projected for total nondefense R&D.
He noted the DOD supports about 42 percent of all research in US engineering schools. The agency supports nearly 60 percent of university research in electrical engineering, more than 40 percent in metallurgy and materials, and nearly half of all research in mathematics, computer science and civil engineering.
"To sharply retrench this funding would truly be a self-defeating act for us and for future generations," Dr. Vest said. "I believe we must commit to global leadership in research and development, educate the public and ourselves on the consequences of not doing so, build and sustain strong R&D budgets, continue to link research and advanced education, and build new and more productive research partnerships among government, universities and industry.
"These steps are critical to our nation's innovation system and to our future military security, economic strength and quality of life. The Department of Defense university research programs are an essential element of this system and should be strongly supported," he said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 16, 1997.