WHEN 43 of the best research universities in the United States agree not to seek or accept a certain type of government grant, you know they're sending a strong message to Congress. You also know they have a powerful motive for doing it. They are protesting a form of political payola in which Congress grants money for specific research facilities at specific institutions. It does this at the behest of congressmen or senators from an institution's home area and at the pleading of paid lobbyists. Without even reviewing the projects' scientific merit, legislation often directs such agencies as the Department of Defense and Department of Energy to fund these facilities out of money already budgeted for research. Programs that have passed a merit review are thereby deprived of badly needed support.
Critics of this academic pork barrel consider it a kind of moral rot eating away at the integrity of US science. To quote a study concluded last March by six higher education associations, to fund research by congressional earmarking ``has the potential to cause serious and lasting damage to the nation's research enterprise.''
But universities that outrage sister institutions by going after the ``pork'' are driven by concern for another kind of rot, which also threatens serious and lasting damage to US research. This is the physical rot and obsolescence of buildings and equipment.
About 80 percent or more of university laboratory equipment is obsolete to some extent. About half of it may be too outmoded for effective teaching. In some cases, buildings and equipment are literally falling apart. In some cases, also, an institution can't carry out research for which funding is available because it lacks adequate facilities. There's money for a great deal of first-rate science in the roughly $7 billion-a-year federal funding for universities. But there's very little money for new facilities. This is in contrast to the situation 15 years ago when federal support for facilities went hand-in-hand with support for the research to be performed in them.
Those institutions that resort to congressional legislation generally do so in desperation. Thus, the recent protest against the practice by the 43 universities is not so much a moral confrontation as it is a spur to the federal government to live up to its responsibility in this area.
Since the early 1970s, both Republican and Democratic administrations and Congress have funded research in the wishful delusion that the universities would provide most of the facilities to carry it out. But the need for buildings, laboratories, and equipment exceeds the means of alumni, industry, and state legislatures - the other sources of university support - to supply it. That need became acute in the early 1980s, and pork-barrel politics entered the traditionally merit-based funding of university science.
Four years ago, the money allocated this way amounted to a mere $10 million. An analysis of the fiscal 1987 federal budget by Business Week magazine has identified at least $250 million in congressionally earmarked funds. Most major US science establishments, including the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, have decried this escalation of ``corruption.''
The Association of American Universities (AAU) has led the antipork fight among educational associations. It joined five other such groups in the study concluded last March. Now, by a vote of 43 to 10, with two abstentions, AAU members have declared a moratorium on seeking or accepting pork-barrel aid for themselves. But both the study conclusions and the moratorium announcement stress the need for a formal federal program to help universities acquire facilities.
Such a program would incorporate merit review of grant requests. It also should give special help to universities that aren't in the front rank of research but would like to be. With something like two dozen or fewer US universities getting 40 to 50 percent of federal research money, the established merit review system can seem discriminatory to have-not institutions and their congressional supporters.
As a start toward solving this problem, Rep. Robert A. Roe, (D) of New Jersey, has introduced a bill that would add $250 million a year for 10 years to the National Science Foundation budget for a facilities program. Proposals would be reviewed for merit, and 15 percent of the funds would be set aside for universities and colleges that got less that $10 million a year in federal research money during the two years preceding their application.
The administration and the Congress should adopt the Roe plan or a comparable one. One way or another, they have to help universities maintain the infrastructure to carry out research. If they continue to do it through a lobbyists' free-for-all, they will indeed inflict ``serious and lasting damage'' on the nation's scientific strength.