WASHINGTON. — Stanford University's withdrawal of its charges to the government for floral bouquets and recreational vessels has provided a good show of the mighty humbled. And glee has been aroused by Harvard Medical School, one step ahead of federal auditors, pulling back $500,000 in bills that it had attributed to indirect costs of federal research.
A basic problem remains: universities, essential to the nation's scientific research and training, are both rich and broke. They're rich in the sense that the big-league institutions, like Stanford and Harvard, are billion-dollar operations, envied worldwide as perhaps the last American enterprises without foreign peers. Educationally wise Japan realizes this and floods our top schools with its top students, especially in science and engineering.
But, as symbolized by peeling paint and shabby structures, much of academe is running with little or nothing to spare. Despite soaring tuitions, many universities are operating in the red, amid nasty tensions over proposals to crimp programs or even eliminate whole departments.
Modern academe grew up in good times that provided few incentives for economizing. Research grants came easily and doting parents usually tolerated the inflated tuition charges -- or low-cost federal loans eased the pain. On this matter, the abrasive William Bennett had it right when, as President Reagan's secretary of education, he assailed academe for inattention to costs.
But even if the fat could all be squeezed out, the big research universities would still be in financial trouble. The cost of doing research is galloping ahead of their ability to raise money. Contrary to the anxiety-ridden misperceptions of the scientists, the problem does not arise from ''cuts'' in government support for science. Federal funds for university research grew by a real 50 percent during the supposedly frugal Reagan years.
The financial plight of science in academe arises from an explosion in both the costs of research, the ranks of researchers, and the ambitions of schools seeking to establish themselves as research institutions. As Roland W. Schmitt, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, recently noted, between 1973 and 1989, the number of university departments receiving federal research money grew by 50 percent in the biological and physical sciences. And the number of post-doctoral researchers rose from 4,300 to 10,300. The irony, Dr. Schmitt points out, is that ''after a decade of some of the best growth in support of academic research that has ever been experienced, the discontent among academic researchers is at an all-time high.''
The paradox of scarcity amid record sums for research arises from the absent-minded fashion in which federal support developed for academic science. With science deemed a social good by American culture and industry, federal money was poured in, but without a framework of priorities. Scientists breed more scientists, and thus the ranks swelled, providing more clamoring customers for government research money. Inevitably, the congressional pork-barrel spirit got into the act as legislators schemed to get a share for the local university.
The way out is politically difficult. Congress' own think tank, the Office of Technology Assessment, recommends that science policy focus on identifying priorities and the tasks to be done, rather than the care and feeding of an over-populated scientific establishment. Good idea, but the scientific community is engaged in an unprecedented lobbying effort with one goal -- more money. The president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Leon Lederman, is campaigning to double the $10 billion Washington now spends on basic research.
The chiseling of indirect costs should not be condoned as academe's version of the poor stealing bread, but it does arise from the perversely straitened finances of university research. Washington has two choices: pay for it all, or ruthlessly concentrate support in the best and ignore the others. The odds are, however, that Washington will, as usual, try to muddle through by doing a bit of each, and thereby worsen a difficult situation.
Daniel S. Greenberg publishes the newsletter Science & Government Report.