Federal regulations too costly; US colleges say: 'Hands off, please'

By , Natural science editor of The Christian Science Monitor

While they may dislike President Reagan's funding cuts, university scientists and administrators see an ally in this antiregulatory administration. Along with captains of business and industry, American academics consider themselves to be intolerably overregulated.

"The most important of the regulations' effects is the growing and unwelcome degree to which government intrudes into the private sector, compromising the capacity for independent action in . . . academic institutions," says a report by the Business Higher Education Forum.

Besided cramping academic independence, economist Howard Bowen of Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, Calif., estimates the regulations add $3 billion to the cost of running some $3,200 institutions of higher learning in the United States.

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The forum is a group of 62 businessmen and educators assembled by the American Council on Education. Its report has been given to Vice-President George Bush as head of the administration's task force on regulatory reform.

The regulations, often introduced in the name of educational reform over the past two decades, grew largely out of some 400 laws overseen by 34 congressional committees. They cover such matters as facilities for handicapped students and affirmative action.

However, some of the rules most onerous to scientists have to do with accountability for their work and free exchange of information. In both of these years, regulations in recent years have reached what university scientists and administrators consider to be a point of absurdity.

In particular, they cite the following:

* The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) now requires university scientists to account for 100 percent of their time.

* The Department of Defense has issued guidelines to limit foreign student involvement in research in such advanced fields as very high speed integrated circuits.

* The Department of Commerce, in the interests of limiting export of US technology, is moving to have universities restrict participation of foreign scientists in research which it sponsors. Also, the department already has excluded Eastern European experts from attending an open scientific meeting in the US.

All of these restrictions and regulations run counter to the traditiond of academic freedom, to say nothing of raising awkward administrative problems.

The "full time" accounting rule is part of what has become a campus cause celebre -- the OMB's A-21 directive on cost accounting for research grants. University people consider it a meaningless bureaucratic concept.

The rule requires a researcher to account for 100 percent of his or her time or effort by category, including those portions not devoted to federally sponsored research. EOS, a publication of the American Geophysical Union, reports:

"The confirmation of senseless concepts, such as percent of effort (would a professor have to account for his thoughts?), and impossible rules (professors often teach, do research, administrate, etc., all at the same time -- and after normal working hours) have led to a sort of cynical compliance by most researchers . . . because the activity breakdowns often cannot be done as required, compliance becomes fabrication."

Faking reports this way "simply goes against the grain of most people," Yale University's D. Allen Bromley says. "The federal government does not own you 100 percent of your time just because it may support some small fraction of your research," he adds.

The National Academy of Sciences has disapproved of the rules. It joins with a number of university presidents who,both individually and jointly, have been pressuring the OMB to reconsider A-21. The OMB has shown some flexibility, allowing postponent of the regulation while altenatives could be suggested. But , at this writing, A-21 stood firm.

The restrictions on foreign participation in university research and scientific meetings that traditionally are free is another matter. This is not a question of secrecy. None of the research or scientific topics at issue are classified for security purposes in any way. The Department of Defense appears to be acting on its own initiative. The Department of Commerce cites the authority of arms control and export regulations.

The International Traffic in Arms regulations, enacted by Congress, restricts export of knowledge or technology that as possible military value. The Commerce Department's own export administrative regulations limit transfer of commercially valuable technology. The department has begun to interpret thes eregulations broadly to restrict free scientific interchange.

Last year, the department prevented Eastern Europeans from attending an American Vacuum Society meeting on computer bubble memories. This and 39 other scientific and technical societies have since applied for exemption from export controls. Meanwhile, the Defense and Commerce Departments have been trying to restrict foreign participation in open research on university campuses.

These moves have drawn protests from scientists and university administrators. A strong letter has been sent to Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger by five university presidents -- Paul E. Gray (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Marvin L. Goldberger (California Institute of Technology), Donald Kennedy (Stanford University), and David S. Saxon (University of California at Berkeley).

Among other things, the five presidents say it would be better to make research fully secret where necessary rather than to try to have partial restrictions. These latter, they believe, would be both unworkable and inimical to the university environment.

It is difficult to foresee how successful the university community will be in reversing what it considers an increasingly impossible regulatory burden. But given the new attitude in Washington, academia is hoping for what the American Council on Education calls "a more systematic, rational national p olicy."

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