Let's keep funding for science out of the pork barrel
When Catholic University in Washington and Columbia University in New York sought federal funds for new facilities, they side-stepped the usual grant application process. Instead, they lobbied their senators and congressmen. So too did Boston College, Boston University, Oregon Health Sciences University, and the Universities of New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania.
As yet, not all of these appeals have been successful. But it is clear that the ethics of seeking federal funding for science are under attack from what H.H. Johnson, a Cornell University research administrator, calls ''invidious tactics.''
The political pork barrel is a congressional tradition. But the funding of US science also has a tradition, one of being sheltered from this corrupting influence. Funds generally are awarded through agencies which supervise research support. And funds are granted only after proposals for research projects or facilities are vetted by qualified experts - the so-called peer review system.
Were it otherwise, the strength of US science, which depends upon excellence, could be eroded. That is why the Association of American Universities has put out a strong policy statement against the lobbying.
It would be naive to suggest that US science funding has been above politics. After all, the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center wasn't placed in the former President's home state of Texas by accident. But the university lobbying evident this year is a blatant departure from the norm.
For example, when Catholic University wanted money for a materials research laboratory, it hired a professional lobbying firm to press its case in Congress. The university also drew criticism when bishops on its board of trustees lobbied their congressmen.
Subsequently, a budget amendment provided $5 million for the Catholic University laboratory. Columbia University, which hired the same Washington lobbying firm, likewise won $5 million for new chemistry facilities. These awards not only circumvented the usual funding review process, they weren't even reviewed by the appropriate congressional committees, since the budget amendments were offered directly from the House floor.
Similar maneuvering by several senators has earmarked $15 million in the Department of Education budget for a Space and Marine Sciences building at the University of New Hampshire, plus $7.5 million to complete a library at Boston College. Oregon Health Sciences University has a claim to $20.6 million in the Health and Human Services budget, thanks to senatorial intervention in legislation.
Not all such machinations have been fruitful. Last month, the Senate amended (without debate) the Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services appropriations bill to give the University of Pennsylvania $9 million for a new dental school. Boston University and the University of New Mexico were also to receive $20.1 million and $18.2 million respectively for new engineering buildings. These amendments did not survive a House-Senate conference on the bill. But the conference did urge federal agencies to give these projects high priority, given proper grant applications.
It is clear that many hands have begun to reach into the federal science fund cookie jar. Thus the Association of American Universities recently issued its strong appeal to halt the practice. The key paragraph states:
''We believe that processes based on informed peer judgments of other scientists need to be preserved and strengthened. We therefore urge scientists, leaders of American universities, and members of Congress to support the practice of awarding funds for the support of science on the basis of scientific merit judged in an objective and informed manner. Further, we urge them to refrain from actions that would make scientific decisions a test of political influence rather than a judgment on the qualities of the work to be done. . . .''
Also, the governing council of the National Academy of Sciences has passed a resolution urging conformity with normal application procedure. It reads, in part:
''Informed peer judgments on the scientific merits of specific proposals, in open competition, should be a central element in the awarding of all federal funds for science. . . .
''We urge that the academic community and public officials exercise vigilance to protect this informed evaluation and decisionmaking process in the awarding of funds, not only for the support of scientific research proposals, but also for major scientific facilities and instrumentation.''
US universities should return to these principles, which once were taken for granted. Failure to do so will eventually tarnish the quality of US science. Not only does the lobbying approach subvert peer review, it also can deprive other universities of funds already approved by that traditional process. In giving money to Columbia and Catholic Universities, for example, the House took some of it from the Department of Energy's budgets for projects at Yale and the University of Washington. Another time, Columbia or Catholic University could be the loser.