SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH is usually considered objective work, but when it comes to funding some universities are apparently attempting to out politicize the White House and Capitol Hill. This disturbing development, though not entirely the fault of the academic institution involved, must be discouraged before the process of disbursing federal science funds to universities is completely subverted.
The cause for alarm is a recent congressional action awarding $5 million grants to a chemistry center at Columbia University and a vitreous center at catholic University after both schools had employed a Washington, D C law firm to do some unusual lobbying.
Usually, Congress and the White House only set a general funding level and a peer review group composed of scientists in the field then recommends where a federal science project should be awarded. However, with the firm Schlossberg-Cassidy doing the lobbying. Columbia and Catholic convinced legislators to include in the 1984 budget, projects earmarked specifically for them, thus by passing the peer group when normally evaluates who should receive funds. By turning the distribution of federal science subsidies into a pork barrel. Columbia and Catholic have threatened to set a worn some precedent that would remove qualified scientific boards from the selection process Paul C Martin. dean of Harvard's Division of Applied Sciences says, "Certainly on the face of there if there is cause for concern."
And that concern could be warranted if other colleges and universities take Columbia and Catholic's cue. According to one congressional staffer familiar with science and technology issues. "The two universities unprecedented action could undermine the whole process of peer review."
But the White House Science Office also should share the blame. Earlier this year, President Reagan's science adviser George A. Key worth proposed a $152 million advanced materials center be built at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory near the campus of the University of California without allowing for the competitive selection through peer review. Normally, the funds would be proposed by an agency and then allocated by Congress. The agency--the Department of Energy in the case of the advanced materials center--would subsequently charge a group of scientists with selecting the appropriate location for the center.
Citing the need, however, to get to work on the advanced materials as quickly as possible for national security purposes, Key worth bypassed the review board, instead proposing and pushing through Congress funds for the center specifically targeted for Berkeley. Congress authorized $3 million for the 1984 fiscal year to begin construction work on the center.
Although it is the country's best interest to start the project as soon as possible, many Washington lobbyists also think a strong effort by Reagan's friends on the West Coast helped Berkeley garner the project. "The President's California Mafia prevailed on this one," one university lobbyist says.
Bruce Abel, a Key worth aide says that the Columbia and Calbolic maneuver's were somewhat different and were "purely political." But Keyworth's unusual move in awarding the advanced materials center to Berkeley without the proper poor review may have provoked the similar actions by Columbia and Catholic. The Rev. William Byron, Catholic's president says that it was the Berkeley move which seemed to condone their later lobbying.
AND IN ALL cases, not only was the principle wrong, but the methods employed were sleazy and sneaky. Keyworth presented the center to Congress as a fait accompli, and the universities had congressmen--Charles Ruggle (D-N.Y.) and Norman Minuets (D-Ca.) respectively--slip an amendment into general authorization hearings just before the bill was sent to the president for signing.
Some changes in the policy should be made. Although the peer review subversion was ill-advised, the Keyworth initiative did raise a legitimate complaint about the system. It is true that the U.S. needs desperately to develop materials in which to compete both militarily and economically with other countries and that going through a couple of years of scientific review could delay the project. Keyworth is correct in his efforts to try and galvanize U.S. scientific efforts toward competition with the country's military and economic foes and to do that as soon as possible. However, that goal and scientific peer review are not mutually exclusive. To accomplish both goals, Keyworth might want to set up a more expeditious screening process for large projects he deems of national security, but it is important that there be some non-partisan scientific oversight before these funds are disbursed.
And all sides should behave more honorably. Although the 1984 budget has been sent to the president and no further large scale funding proposals will be made until the next year's budget process begins later this year, universities, agency officials, and congressmen should stand by peer review and make sure that these three incidents become isolated events rather than everyday occurrences.