ONE of the shibboleths of US science is that the award of government grants should be based on merit, not on political influence. But when the grant process doesn't cover such a basic need as maintaining and upgrading university research facilities, political clout can sometimes command attention when need and merit are ignored.
That is why some universities have hired Washington lobbyists to help convince Congress to fund new laboratories and other facilities directly, thus bypassing the normal grant-application process.
It's called the academic pork barrel. And the rest of the US science establishment, which plays by the rules, doesn't like it. Most scientific leaders consider it a corrupting practice that could undermine the integrity of research funding.
The practice has grown up over the past several years. It shows no sign of disappearing, in spite of virtually unanimous denunciation by the leadership of US science.
This prompted Frank Press, president of the National Academy of Sciences, to send out a ``Dear Colleague'' letter to his constituents, Dec. 12, reiterating the academy's concern with what he called ``a problem of great significance to American science.'' The academic pork barrel, he said, draws funds away ``from relatively scarce research budgets that are essential to the entire research university system.''
He noted that if the practice escalates, ``the possibility of undermining the evaluation and review system that has been responsible for the great strength of American science will become a reality.'' He explained that the ``concern is that our own colleagues, faced with the absence of a national program to construct new facilities for science, and stressed by severe local conditions, will compete with each other in the political arena, instead of working together to develop a coherent national program for addressing these urgent needs.''
No one denies the universities' plight. More than a decade of scant funding for labs, libraries, equipment, and other facilities has taken its toll. As US Rep. Don Fuqua (D) of Florida, chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology, observed during hearings last May, ``Many of our university laboratories are in an alarming state of disrepair and deterioration. They do not provide suitable facilities for modern research.''
This is considered no excuse for a university to have a friendly representative or senator shepherd legislation through Congress that ``directs'' an agency to grant money. To hire high-priced Washington consultants to plan and help implement a total lobbying strategy raises eyebrows even higher. Such are the tactics for gaining access to the academic pork barrel. The fruits are illustrated by what happened to the Department of Energy (DOE) research budget last year.
By the time Congress wrapped up business in late summer, it had tucked some $21 million worth of facilities grants for favored universities into that budget. They included a $7 million down payment on a supercomputer center at Florida State University (in Mr. Fuqua's home state), a $2.3 million planning grant for a new science facility at the University of Oregon (a favorite project of Oregon Republican Sen. Mark Hatfield), $8.9 million to finish a physics lab at Catholic University, and $3 million to continue construction of new chemistry facilities at Columbia University. Congress offset these ``directed'' grants somewhat by cutting $16 million from a variety of DOE-supported research projects that had been reviewed and approved in open competition.
Actually, Fuqua had proceeded properly. He consulted with the appropriate agencies and with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Nevertheless, the appearance of impropriety sparked criticism. This subsided as the true picture emerged.
Indeed, OSTP director and presidential science adviser George A. Keyworth II has said that Fuqua has ``been erroneously maligned.'' In comments published by Chemical and Engineering News, he added, ``There was no pork. It bore no resemblance to what was being done via the lobbying process. There was careful comparison to other opportunities in other agencies.''
But the other lobbying represented what Dr. Keyworth calls ``blatant pork'' -- something he, too, now deplores. His own record is not entirely clean, however. He muddied the waters a couple of years ago by trying to set up an Advanced Materials Research Center at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, run by the University of California, without an adequate review of its merits by the materials science community. After some controversy, the lab was established at a more modest level than had been envisioned. But the apparent attempt to bypass the review process is considered to have been a major blunder.
Harold Hanson, executive director of the Fuqua committee staff, says that ``the major difficulty is that the federal government is not funding major facilities [at universities].'' He explains that a proper procedure is needed so that, when constituents ask a representative or senator for a facility, he or she can say that ``this has to go through such and such an agency.''
Meanwhile, the White House Science Council is finishing a half-year study of the needs and health of US universities. OSTP staff member John McTague urges waiting for the report of that panel, which is chaired by David Packard (of Hewlett-Packard), to define the universities' facilities needs. Then the administration and Congress can decide how best to meet those needs.
Dr. McTague says he is not at all sure that bricks-and-mortar funding ``should be institutionalized'' as a separate grant program. -- 30 --