There's More Than One Way to Slice Academic Pork

October 03, 1994|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington.--In these hard times, what's wrong about an ambitious university lobbying in Washington for a couple of million dollars to build a laboratory or a library?

Nothing at all, many political traditionalists say, noting that, from sewers to missiles, immense chunks of federal spending are influenced by local interests. That's pork-barrel politics, a pillar of governance dating back to the nation's beginnings. At rates reported to start at $20,000 a month, many universities rely on Washington lobbyists to pursue their dreams on Capitol Hill. Why should universities drop out of a game that yielded them $650 million last year for hundreds of projects?

Purists answer that institutions of higher learning shouldn't stoop to such grubby practices. They should shun selfishness and rely on independent, objective peer review to parcel out the scarce funds available according to what's best for science and the country -- and not just for the home team.

Championing this view is Rep. George Brown, D-Calif., chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, in alliance with many of the country's richer, research-oriented universities. A shrewd parliamentarian, Mr. Brown has defeated numerous earmarks and persuaded some colleagues to avoid the practice. Nonetheless, the pork pursuit flourishes.

Pork-barrel grabs, also known as ''earmarks,'' upset rational planning, Mr. Brown contends, and divert money from projects highly rated by expert reviewers. To the counter argument that pork projects are also scientifically important, the congressman says that peer review is the best judge of that.

A decisive argument? Not exactly, because as hard as it is to believe when academic pork is regularly denounced as shameless pilfering of precious research funds, there's a case for earmarks. Likened to bandits by Congressman Brown and company, the pork recipients usually take the money and slink away. But now and then one of them stands up, acknowledges success in the back alleys of Congress, and denounces the critics.

That's what President John Silber of Boston University did September 22, in an encounter with Mr. Brown. Dr. Silber, whose university has reaped scores of millions for research with the aid of a Washington lobbying firm, ridiculed peer review as a self-serving device for concentrating federal research money in a small group of universities that early in the post-war period got a head start in achieving scientific quality -- Boston University not among them.

Defending his university's latest haul, a $29 million earmark for a Center for Photonics Research (the study of light and how to control it), Dr. Silber said the peer-review system is ''seriously flawed.'' With 592 universities receiving federal research funds, according to government statistics, 31 of them received half the total, he noted, attributing the unbalanced distribution to ''a tightly knit old-boy network.''

He continued: ''It is no wonder that the big players among the universities in the competition for federal research funding prefer to focus on the alleged dangers to the peer-review system. They virtually own that system,'' he charged, adding that ''it is hardly surprising that the rich get richer or that the disadvantaged seek relief from Congress.''

Despite the rancor over earmarks, Dr. Silber pointed out, they actually make up a very small portion of federal money for university-based research -- about 6 percent of the $11 billion in that category.

The anti-pork campaigners are armed with studies showing diverse membership on peer-review panels, with ample representation of lesser institutions. And they also observe, with indignation, that several of the richer universities -- Columbia and Northwestern among them -- do well in peer-reviewed competition for funds, and play the Washington lobbying game for extras.

Despite the fervor of the antis, the pork process isn't the threat that Congressman Brown and others claim it to be. The peer-review system isn't as wise as its advocates would have us believe, nor is the pork system a serious danger to the quality of science. Even Mr. Brown concedes that many pork projects are scientifically worthy.

Earmarking is an alternative method for dispensing science money. Managed by politicians rather than scientists, it looks like a fearsome threat to the science establishment. But it's just another way of doing business in a system that otherwise is under pretty tight control. Stretched though it may be, the science budget is big enough to tolerate diversity.

Daniel S. Greenberg is a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and health.

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