Critics see the appropriation as the latest example of "pork-barrel science"—a direct appeal to Congress for construction funds in the absence of peer review for quality and need. Supporters argue that politics should play a part in the appropriation of federal funds and that lesser-known institutions deserve a slice of the federal pie as they try to strengthen their programs. There is no formal peer-review process within federal agencies to fund university facilities because, officially, there are no federal funds available for such purposes.
A look at the eight projects shows that the federal government is only one of many sources of funding for university construction. In fact, federal funds often stimulate larger contributions from private, state and industrial sources.
The $22.9 million that the University of Oregon will receive this year brings to $33.9 million the total federal contribution to the University's $45.3 million graduate science technology center in Eugene. University President Paul Olum said at groundbreaking ceremonies in November that the federal contribution will "make it possible for the University to move into the top 10 public universities of the nation in the quality of its scientific research." The four-building complex, to be completed in the spring of 1989, will house the institutes of molecular biology, neuroscience, materials science, chemical physics and theoretical science and the departments of physics, chemistry, biology and geology.
A $16.3 million federal contribution will allow the University of South Carolina to complete and fully equip its Energy Research Complex. The federal money also will help to refurbish an adjacent building that will house chemical, electrical and computer engineering labs, as well as to help plan a graduate sciences research center. But the University is not knocking just on federal doors. The three-story, 210,000-square-foot John Swearingen Engineering Center was begun in 1985 with $15 million in private funds. It includes $4.5 million in land and buildings donated by South Carolina Electric and Gas Company. And University administrators are trying to convince the state to make a five-year, $300 million commitment to help lure high-tech industry to land adjacent to the campus.
Iowa State University, which received $6 million in federal funds for its planned Center for New Industrial Materials, is taking a similarly diversified approach to finding support for research facilities. State and industrial contributions are helping to make possible construction of the $12 million, 90,000-square-foot structure. And the University will soon launch a five-year campaign to raise $80 million in private funds for eight such centers, ranging from agricultural toxicology to microelectronics. The state legislature has also been asked to approve a multimillion-dollar bond issue for construction of the centers.
"This begins a new era for us," said South Carolina President John Holderman, "as we turn more and more to federal funding for major research efforts. Major research universities in other states have been at this practice successfully for years. We are latecomers to this process, and we intend to catch up." The University has hired the firm of Lane and Mittendorf to represent its interests in Washington, and enlisted the aid of Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), a member of the Appropriations Committee and incoming chair of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Oregon and Iowa State have not hired Washington lobbyists but instead have relied heavily on influential House and Senate members who serve on important committees.
Ironically, Holderman now sits on the National Science Board, the policy-making arm of the National Science Foundation. The board studied the issue in 1983 and concluded, according to Executive Director Thomas Ubois, that such appropriations "were probably not in the best interest of developing a strong science base in this country."
But the issue refuses to go away. The Association of American Universities, an organization of major research universities that has strongly opposed pork-barrel appropriations in the past, has convened a panel of university administrators and congressional staff to suggest ways to balance competing scientific and political interests in the debate. Its report is due by the end of the month. In the meantime its 54 members, which include the University of Oregon and Iowa State University, apparently are free to chart their own courses.
"This administration has a policy that is opposed to supporting university research facilities, and a budget that does not include any funds for it," said Michael Crow, director of science policy at Iowa State. "We believe that's wrong."
Crow scoffed when asked whether the $6 million appropriation was an example of "pork-barrel" science. "I'm tired of people taking pot shots at us for avoiding peer review," he said. "If somebody could show us the process, we'd be happy to compete with the best research universities in the country for our fair share."
Who's Getting What
The Omnibus Spending Bill passed October 17 by Congress to fund $576 billion in government programs redirected funds slated for uranium and enrichment activities within the Department of Energy to eight research facility construction projects. In addition to those mentioned, in the accompanying story, the projects included: