The money, to be allocated by a new office of science that the legislation would establish, is earmarked for research in areas that include fighting bioterrorism, improving encryption and ensuring the safety of federal buildings.
Kevin Casey, a Harvard lobbyist who has actively monitored the legislation, said he expects that Harvard will receive a substantial portion of the estimated $2 billion.
“Significant new money is going to be in play and it’s clear we have some very talented researchers recognized in the field,” Casey said.
But universities that receive the money might need to agree to a stipulation that some of their research be classified as sensitive. Casey and other university lobbyists are arguing against what they say could be an overly restrictive provision.
“It’s a very ripe issue,” he said. “It has to do with the free flow of ideas that we relish at a university and the sensitive areas people might be working on.”
The proposal to establish an office of science is part of a larger bill that would create a Department of Homeland Security. A House resolution passed in July and two bills are under deliberation in the Senate.
But in addition to the confidentiality issue, several aspects of the pending legislation pose concerns for universities.
The Gramm-Miller bill in the Senate contains provisions that would take $1.5 billion from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and place it under the control of the Department of Homeland Security for researching bioterrorism.
Casey said Harvard, which receives about $250 million annually from the NIH, is opposed to the move because the University feels that research decisions should be made by scientific institutions whenever possible.
“We’re not saying there isn’t a need for shorter-term, more applied research,” he said, “but we’d like it to be as narrow as it’s necessary to be.”
Another recent concern to university lobbyists was an amendment to the House bill by Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Tex.), the Boston Globe reported Sunday.
The amendment specified the creation of a university-based research center that was seemingly tailored to directly benefit Texas A&M University, according to a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article.
The amendment stipulated that, in order to be eligible to house the research center, a university would have to have veterinary and agricultural departments, among other requirements. Universities like Harvard, which has neither a veterinary nor an agricultural department, would have been ineligible for this funding.
Another possible outgrowth of homeland security legislation is an agency that would distribute $200 to $500 million to institutions for specific research aims. The proposed Security Advanced Research Projects Agency has garnered enthusiastic support from university lobbyists.
Casey said he was optimistic that the federal grants, which may also be distributed via a peer-based review system, would help to make universities more central in combating bioterrorism.
“A longer term view might be that schools of public health are now becoming a much brighter focal point because of treatment of diseases and first response training,” he said.
The legislation may also be a sign that universities, perceived to be a safety risk in the wake of Sept. 11, are now being seen as assets in the fight against terrorism.
“The universities have been quite cooperative when it comes to working with the administration to balance the needs of researchers with the needs of homeland security,” said Kathryn Harrington, spokesperson for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
April Burke, a lobbyist for the California Institute of Technology and the University of Southern California, said splitting up the $2 billion among universities will also require deciding what kinds of projects to fund first.
“In the world of issues addressed by the new department, I think the most important thing is sifting through in some kind of triage and taking the most threatening issues first,” she said.