Trimming fat from the academic pork barrel

It's a strange alliance. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, his fiscal critic Sen. William Proxmire (D) of Wisconsin, and much of the United States scientific community have sunk their differences to go after the ``academic pork barrel.'' They're concerned that direct appeals to Congress by universities seeking money for research and buildings threatens the integrity of America's scientific enterprise. It corrupts the normal procedures that award funds after careful review of the merits of competing grant applications. As Secretary Weinberger told budget raider Sen. Ted Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, ``The competitive process, which has been supported by Congress, has contributed to the preeminence that our nation's universities enjoy. . . . Earmarking research funds for specific universities, without merit competition, establishes a precedent that could jeopardize this preeminence.''

Yet despite such protests, academic pork barreling has become a big-bucks business in Washington. With the help of their local congressional delegations and high-powered lobbying firms, some universities and colleges have run up the stakes from a mere $3 million in 1982 to potentially around $121 million for fiscal 1987, depending on the fate of pending legislation.

The implications are alarming. Not only does the continued growth of this process short circuit merit review, it often diverts money intended for research into bricks and mortar. Northeastern University, for example, hopes to build a library with money Congress has been trying to pry out of Air Force engineering research funds.

It's easy to condemn universities that look to the pork barrel for help. But some of them are acting more out of desperation than greed. The White House Science Council study of the health of universities, led by David Packard and D. Allan Bromley of Yale University, cited deterioriating facilities as a major problem. A committee of the National Science Board puts the need for new laboratory instruction facilities alone at $2 billion to $4 billion.

Neither Congress nor various administrations has faced up to this growing problem for over a decade. Federal support for university research facilities -- as opposed to research itself -- virtually ended in 1969. It's little wonder that some universities are taking their case directly to Congress.

Also, not everone thinks merit review is a good thing. Roughly half the federal support for university research goes to two or three dozen institutions. Most of these are on the East and West coasts. That's been a sore point with many senators and representatives from other areas. They note that members of peer-review teams tend to come from places that conduct the kinds of research which they review.

So when university officials or their paid lobbyists go to Capitol Hill, they find champions to make their case in Congress. Indeed, Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona insists that pork barreling corrects a ``fundamental flaw'' in awarding federal research funds that leaves many universities and colleges ``picking up the crumbs.''

Most of the ``corrective'' action is aimed at the Department of Defense (DOD) and Department of Energy (DOE) budgets. At this writing, pending legislation for fiscal 1987 would divert $65.6 million of DOD funds and $55.6 million of DOE money. Similar funds were diverted for fiscal 1986. But the administration refused to spend them. It rescinded the DOE set-asides and flatly challenged the DOD diversions as illegal.

Sens. Danforth and Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico are keeping the pressure on their colleagues. They've won Senate approval for an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill to ensure that no funds go to universities unless the Secretary of Defense determines the grant ``is based on . . . technical merit.'' Also, the House Armed Services Committee's report on its version of the bill pointedly comments, ``if it were possible to do so, the committee would propose to erect a permanent ban against earmarking funds for research and research facilities.''

Whether or not the defenders of integrity prevail this year, there does seem to be strong congressional distaste for the academic pork barrel in spite of some members' distrust of elitist peer review. Meanwhile, the overriding need is for Congress and the administration to come up with a meaningful, merit-based program to fund new university facilities across the United States. That would kill the incentive to subvert merit review.

Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.

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