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Science Gets Political : Congress' Pork-Barrel Grants Threaten Our Progress

March 29, 1987|RICHARD C. ATKINSON | Richard C. Atkinson is the chancellor of UC San Diego and a former director of the National Science Foundation.

The support of basic science is one of the most important but least understood issues confronting modern nations. Basic research is the foundation of technological progress. Economic prosperity, industrial productivity, national security and international prestige depend on it.

In Europe basic research is organized through nationally supported research centers and institutes. Typically, these institutes receive direct funding from their central government, and have little interaction with the country's universities.

The United States has adopted a different model to support basic research, one that grew out of the experiences of World War II. During the war, the federal government needed a great deal of research done quickly, so it looked to the universities where facilities and scientists were in place. The outcome of this interaction between federal support and the universities was spectacular.

After the war the pattern continued. Through agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, the majority of federal support for basic research has been directed to universities, thus maintaining the crucial tie between basic research and the training of graduate students who in turn are the next generation of scientists.

All would agree that basic research in American universities has produced the most significant advance of scientific knowledge in history. In the last 40 years American science has dominated the international prize competition and has generated the technological revolution that touches every aspect of our lives.

A key ingredient in the American system is peer review. Panels of distinguished scientists review and evaluate research proposals. Those with the greatest promise of making scientific advances are recommended for funding.

Despite a long history of success, the peer-review process is under a subtle but insistent attack that may signal its demise. The attack comes in the form of special congressional initiatives to provide funding for university research facilities in home districts of legislators. This practice has increased dramatically in recent years, in part as a response to a genuine funding crisis in American universities. Over the past 20 years university research facilities have been allowed to deteriorate. At the same time, their costs have escalated sharply. A few universities have turned directly to their representatives in Congress to help.

This "pork-barrel" approach is unfortunate and harmful because it addresses a crucial national problem--support of basic research--as a series of disconnected local issues solvable by the same practice employed to repair roads and bridges. The most obvious casualty is peer review. Funds are diverted from already constrained research budgets to construct facilities whose benefits are essentially local. This diversion takes place without prior evaluation or consultation among scientists, government experts, or even congressional oversight committees, about the merits of the research. The result is the deterioration of basic research and, in turn, the nation's technological capacity.

It has been argued that peer review is simply a code name for an old boys' network that enables a small number of elite universities to flourish. The scientists at these universities, it is claimed, dominate peer-review panels and ensure that their universities receive special treatment. The critics charge that the elite universities get more than their fair share of research funds, allowing them an even greater advantage in attracting scientific talent.

The weakness of this argument is illustrated by the number of universities that have become major research centers in recent years without resorting to congressional intervention. Such progress requires significant commitment of university resources to recruit outstanding faculty, vigorous fund-raising in the private sector, and in the case of public universities, solid support by the state.

The postwar collaboration in basic research between universities and the federal government has served this nation well. Peer review is a critical element of this collaboration. Rather than being dismissed as a casualty to expediency, it should be reaffirmed as the surest way to maintain this nation's preeminence in science and technology. The intense demands that are being placed on our society can be dealt with only if we continue to direct limited resources to the most promising and creative projects. To distribute research funds via congressional pork-barreling is a certain path to mediocrity.

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