The presidents of more than 40 of the country's elite research universities--including all the members in the University of California system--have agreed to stop accepting direct congressional research grants that have not been subjected to a traditional competitive review process.
With such support, the signers of the moratorium contended, Congress is subjecting American science to a system of "pork-barrel" politics by giving universities direct support for research projects and bypassing the time-honored "peer-review" process.
Under the traditional peer-review process used by the federal government for most research awards in the past, academic scientists themselves evaluate their own peers' requests for support on the basis of the potential scientific merits of the research proposals.
Direct congressional awards to specific universities, once an insignificant portion of the federal budget, have grown sharply in recent years. According to the most recent federal analyses, Congress made about $3 million in such awards in 1982 but nearly $140 million worth of direct grants in 1985. Although more recent data is not available, some congressional aides have estimated in recent months that the figure has grown even more rapidly in the last two years.
Secret Mail Ballot
The 43 presidents who voted for the moratorium did so in a secret mail ballot on a resolution drafted by the Assn. of American Universities. Ten presidents whose institutions are members of the association voted against the proposal and two abstained.
The AAU, an organization of prominent research universities, has not announced which of its members supported the moratorium and which opposed it. However, a spokeswoman for UC President David P. Gardner said he voted for the ban, as did the chancellors of the three UC campuses that are members of the AAU--UCLA, UC Berkeley and UC San Diego. USC President James H. Zumberge also voted in favor.
It was not known for certain late Friday afternoon how Stanford University's President Donald A. Kennedy voted on the issue, although a spokesman for the university said that "we surely voted on the side of the angels" because Kennedy has also long been an opponent of pork-barrel research and has spoken out forcefully against the practice in recent years.
Strong Stand by Cornell
In the East, Cornell University has taken such a strong stand on the issue of direct congressional research support that university officials there have said that they have turned down $10 million in direct congressional research aid in recent months.
Most university presidents and researchers have been reluctant to speak out so forcefully, however. They have worried that their actions and statements would be seen as an affront to Congress, which has the final say not only on direct grants but overall budgets for funding agencies, such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.
Since it is these agencies from which research universities draw the bulk of their support, many university presidents were eager to make a collective statement to Congress about what they say is one of the most troublesome trends in federal research spending in recent years.