Grant awards should be based on merit, not on political clout

US Rep. Don Fuqua (D) of Florida, chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology, has commissioned a two-year study of United States science policy. He wants to be sure that Congress, among other federal bodies, makes sound and rational decisions on research funding.

The first thing the study panel should look at, however, is Mr. Fuqua's own practices. Thanks to his personal intervention, Congress has directed the Department of Energy (DOE) to give Mr. Fuqua's very own Florida State University want. Instead of submitting a grant application, which would be reviewed on its merits, Florida State used political influence to get its money. The $7 million now is to be taken out of DOE-funded research programs that were properly reviewed and approved on their merits.

This is hardly a sound and rational basis for research funding.

Such substitution of political influence for the traditional process of peer (expert) review of grant requests is a new kind of academic pork barrel that has emerged in the past few years. It is a corruption of research funding that threatens the integrity of federal support of US science and technology. This is why several leading professional groups have condemned it. For example:

* A National Academy of Sciences resolution of Oct. 30, 1983, says 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 decision-making process....''

* A Dec. 10, 1983, statement by the directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science warns that ''failures to adhere both in principle and in practice to criteria of scientific choice at all times will serve only to diminish public confidence in the peer review system as the basis for allocating national resources, with serious negative consequences for the integrity and advancement of science.''

* During its annual meeting last year, the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges - Florida State's peer group - adopted a statement Nov. 14 warning that the academic pork barrel could lead to ''an irrational system of distribution based solely on political influence.'' It urged ''members of Congress and leaders of colleges and universities to refrain from this practice.''

Despite such warnings, some universities and their congressional contacts still seek out the pork barrel, as the Department of Energy's fiscal 1985 budget illustrates. Besides Florida State's $7 million, Congress mandated $2.3 million for the University of Oregon to plan a new science facility (a favorite project of Oregon Republican Sen. Mark Hatfield), $8.9 million to finish a physics lab at Catholic University, and $3 million to allow Columbia University to continue building new chemistry facilities.

Congress offset this somewhat by cutting $16 million from a variety of DOE-supported research projects that had been reviewed in open competition. This is the kind of corruption of US research of which the National Academy and other professional groups have warned.

Florida State's supercomputer center is an especially egregious example. The National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, and the DOE are preparing a national program to make supercomputer facilities available to US universities. Instead of waiting for this program and allowing its project to compete fairly with others, Congressman Fuqua has used his influence to favor Florida State University. Thus a major federal initiative to aid universities has been partly subverted.

US universities badly need new facilities of many kinds. Federal support for bricks and mortar and equipment has been sparse, compared with its support for research itself. But subversion of careful federal planning, open competition, and awards based on scientific and technical merit will only make a bad situation very much worse.

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