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Worrisome Trend : Research Funds: Not So Scientific

November 27, 1987|FRANK CLIFFORD | Times Staff Writer

On a farm in western Massachusetts, Ray Coppinger raises sheep dogs with money he received from the federal government. He worries about winning a Golden Fleece Award--one of Sen. William Proxmire's booby prizes for novel examples of government waste.

It's not that Coppinger's work has no purpose. The Hampshire College biologist has placed 1,000 of his specially trained dogs with ranchers and farmers throughout the country who are trying to protect their livestock from coyotes and wolves without resorting to guns or poison.

What makes Coppinger nervous, however, is knowing that many people do not approve of the way he got his animal research money. His grant was part of a new trend in congressional funding of science that has leading members of the nation's academic community in an uproar.

More and more, politicians rather than scientists are deciding who gets the federal research money available to universities each year. Lobbyists have entered the scene. Political contributions are greasing the skids.

Key Questions

Presidents of major universities, accustomed to a lion's share of research dollars, are worried about future funding and about the broader implications. They ask how the nation's best interests can be served if science funding becomes a spoils system.

Most research money is still governed by merit review. But the critics of the new trend worry that politicization of science is becoming the norm. Even now, they say, marginal projects are gaining the same access to science dollars as work on superconductors or research on the Strategic Defense Initiative.

"It is easy to see how congressional earmarking of research funds could undermine the quality of work we sponsor. Research that does not receive some kind of review could be of very low quality," said James F. Decker, acting director of the Office of Energy Research in the Department of Energy.

Help From Congress

Work like Coppinger's at Hampshire College may not cost much--only about $180,000 in federal money to date--and it is welcomed by environmentalists. But Coppinger admits he would not have received his money from the Department of Agriculture without the intercession of Rep. Sylvio O. Conte (R-Mass.) and other members of Congress.

It's that sort of political intervention that rankles critics. They argue that the nation's basic research budget is turning into a pork barrel where Coppinger's dogs and a host of more political animals are allowed to feed while worthier candidates for federal science dollars are going hungry.

Until fairly recently, federal scientific research money was available to colleges and universities mostly on the basis of merit or "peer" review by panels of scientists drawn from government, industry and academia. These reviews are meant to reward proposals that put the best minds to work on solving the nation's most critical scientific needs. The reviews are conducted by scientists on behalf of federal agencies, such as the departments of Defense and Energy, who put up the money for the research.

But the peers have made enemies.

Members of Congress feel they should have a greater role in deciding who should receive the billions of dollars available for scientific research.

"When did we agree that the peers would cut the melon or decide who gets the money?" asked Louisiana Sen. Russell Long in a 1986 debate over $56 million in Defense Department research funds.

Competing With Giants

Many schools have chafed under the peer-review system. They felt they had little chance of developing their own research potential as long as they had to compete for federal dollars against MIT, Harvard, the University of California and other academic giants. In the eyes of many smaller schools, peer review was simply a way for the rich to get richer.

Recently, The Times set out to identify the winners and losers under peer review and to size up the revolt against the system. The Times relied on a computer analysis directed by Caltech political science professor Bruce Cain.

The Caltech analysis indicates that a handful of big-name, well-fixed schools have fared best under the peer-review system. It shows that, before 1982 and the growth of the pork-barreling trend, 20 schools received 41% of all federal research money allocated to universities. That left 570 academic research institutions to fight for the rest.

(Caltech ranked 29th in receipt of peer-reviewed funds.)

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