CLAREMONT — Recent controversies about federal science funds for university research have become highly visible--and acrimonious. Debate about who should get support and why, long the province of a carefully developed system of peer, or merit, review, have been the subject of special task-force reports, congressional hearings and cover stories. Examples of the controversies include:
--A $25-million center for earthquake research was won by a consortium of universities from upstate New York (an area not known for frequent earthquake activity). The losing coalition of Southern California universities, led by Caltech, vigorously protested. Among other objections, losers claimed that the winning proposal lifted, virtually word-by-word, several pages from previously published writings of one of the California scientists.
--Superconductivity research published in the last year may well be the most important discovery in physics in decades. The practical implications of these findings are judged by experts to be staggering. The researcher who made a major discovery is employed by the University of Alabama, Huntsville, where, one wag suggested, many national science policy observers "really aren't sure the faculty can read and write."
--A growing number of second- and third-tier universities, feeling iced out of the competition, hire lobbying firms, companies that pride themselves in assisting universities to circumvent peer review by getting facilities and other awards listed as line items in otherwise unrelated congressional legislation.
Rhetoric has become overheated, ranging from allegations that pork-barrel science will eradicate merit to claims that only a few universities in this country have scientists qualified to conduct cutting-edge research.
This is not an isolated academic tea-party discussion about who gets how many crumbs from the funding pie. (Although it has been suggested that academic politics get unusually vicious because the stakes are so low.) The consequences of this debate will be of fundamental importance for the technological strength of our economy.
Most science-policy analysts agree that the chain of technological innovation goes something like this: Federal funding leads to basic research which leads to applied research which leads to development, production and dissemination or marketing. This is, admittedly, a simplified version of the process. But most technological innovations begin with basic research and most of the nation's basic research is done in our universities. Federal science-funding policy, then, is an issue that cuts to the heart of our competitive stance as a nation.
The controversies swirl around an assumption and a fact. The assumption is that the only basis for awarding federal science funds is merit. Simply put, we want to fund the best scientists doing the most creative projects. Most policy-makers and analysts agree that this is the only defensible policy. And we believe that there is no justification for end runs around peer review, like those executed by lobbyists. If a new medication turns out to have devastating side effects, we don't want it to be because second-rate researchers got funded under pork-barrel rules. Nor do we want it to be because a second-rate researcher at one of the country's leading research institutions beat out a better researcher with more creative ideas who happened to be employed at a rural state university. Evidence indicates that the latter threat is more likely than the former.
That's the assumption. The fact is that a huge proportion of federal science funds go to the leading institutions. More than 40% of such funds are awarded to the leading 20 universities each year. This has been true for decades; the struggle about precisely this issue delayed creation of the National Science Foundation, the principal agency funding university research.
Proponents of the present concentration of funds argue that NSF and other federal agencies must base decisions solely on the excellence of proposed research. If the best researchers--and the best ideas--happen to be in a few leading institutions, then there is no question where science funding should be directed.
Proponents of a greater geographical dispersion of funds argue that potentially creative scientists are not being trained or nurtured in sparsely developed regions, that there are significant benefits to a local region from having centers of scientific excellence, that progress in basic research to some degree is dependent upon a synergistic reaction with industrial R&D and some industries thrive in regions that do not have a leading university. Good science, they insist, may be overlooked under current funding procedures.