There's a nasty little business hidden in the compromise budget President Bush has signed that most critics seemed to have missed. It's a replay of the academic pork barrel.
Once again some representatives and senators have been able to earmark funds for pet projects at local institutions without these projects receiving merit review. "So what?" you might say. It's business as usual in Congress. What adds the drop of nastiness - or to use the words of Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., "what makes this most objectionable" - is that the action this time flouts federal law.Nunn, who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, refers specifically to legislation affecting the Department of Defense's $36 billion budget for university research. It earmarks some $100 million for pork-barrel projects. Nunn notes that, in allowing the earmarking, the Senate-House conference committee explicitly waived provisions of existing law that require such awards to be made on the basis of fair and open competition.
It has been bad enough for some institutions to circumvent competent review of their funding requests with the help of expensive lobbyists and their state's congressional delegations. But when those allies persuade colleagues to sidestep Congress's own laws, the practice corrupts the integrity of government as well as the research-funding process.
Administrations and faculties of universities that participate in this sorry practice should ask themselves if the money gained is worth the social cost.
The funds given to any one institution are relatively modest. The University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, for example, gets $10 million for a technology research center. Loyola College in Baltimore gets $3.5 million to complete an information and resource-management studies center. And so on. Such awards can mean a lot to specific projects. But they are hardly "big bucks" prizes. So why go after them in ways that undercut open competition and now the law?
The real longstanding issue is how to make such competition truly fair in a system that tends to favor the "haves" over the "have-nots." Federal funding has helped build up a limited number of outstanding research universities. Because of their ability to maintain outstanding faculty and first-class research infrastructures, these universities tend to win the bulk of federal funding and grow even stronger. This has given the United States centers of academic excellence that are part of the country's basic strength. At the same time, it makes it hard for less-favored colleges and universities to develop top-notch research centers of their own.
Many in Congress are fed up with this system. They often note that merit review, in practice, means a small group of experts from leading universities judging each other's proposals. It's no wonder that the have-not institutions find ready congressional allies when they want to short-circuit the competitive grant process.
Congress has told the National Science Foundation to have the National Academy of Sciences assess the NSF grant funding system. The academy should use this opportunity to recommend a funding strategy that is truly fair - that can meet the legitimate needs of have-not institutions while preserving scientific integrity.
Meanwhile, institutions tempted by the pork barrel should beware. The citizen anger over Washington's budget bumbling could turn on them.