IN AN ETHICS course taught last semester, a professor presented an age-old problem to his students. If a man is starving and without a job, is it acceptable for him to steal food for his family. The professor finished the lecture and the course without giving an answer.
Unfortunately answers of this kind are badly needed, not only by individuals but also by research institutions, including Harvard and others around the nation. During the past few years, Harvard has pushed extremely hard to raise money from private sources for projects such as rebuilding the Chemistry and Biology Labs. In the meantime, Columbia University managed to convince Congress to direct $8 million their way for a new chemistry facility. The University of Oregon also took the "back door" recently by getting the Department of Energy to grant them $2.3 million for the construction of a science facility--a project that received strong support from one of the state's senators, Mark Hatfield.
Because federal support is so hard to come by, universities like Columbia and Oregon are quietly abandoning tradition means of securing aid and are turning instead to a new arena of money-raising. They are by passing both the established peer review system and the general budget proceedings and are appealing directly to Congress for funds.
Other beneficiaries of this large-scale Congressional wheedling include Florida State University, which nabbed a hefty $7 million to start construction on a new supercomputer facility, and Catholic University, which walked off with $8.9 million for a laboratory of its own.
While most American universities are suffering from a dearth of funds, federal support for university research over the past decade has fallen especially short of the demand. Even though Harvard is in no sense suffering from a lack of money, it still has trouble finding enough to keep its research programs running smoothly.
Of course, the universities which are dipping into the "academic pork barrel" are not "stealing," and there is even a strong argument in favor of their action. For example, if a college needs a new physics lab, why should it compete with the needs of other universities? Why shouldn't it instead just have a local Congressman slip through a piece of legislation that "directs" a federal agency to grant the money? In this way universities can obtain millions without subjecting the proposal to the highly competitive peer review system.
Although only a few universities have resorted to such a procedure, it is nonetheless threatening the integrity of the traditional federal support system. Although use of the non-traditional route by a few universities last year produced a strong reaction, the reaction had little effect. The 1985 budget again allowed several universities extra funding.
TO MAKE MATTERS worse, the back door funding cut into the grants normally awarded to scholars and institutions through competition. The National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and several other organizations have issued statements condemning such practices, and they should be heeded.
The fact that several leading universities continue to subvert the system says more about the state of U.S. research funding in general than it does about their ethical standards. Simply stated, the neglect of facilities due to a lack of federal support is bringing man, research instruction to their know. Returning to the original analogy, some university administrators may feel like the jobless citizen who abandon the accepted means of securing food for his family. An appeal to Congress may in fact be a lesser evil than allowing their research facilities to erode.
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