Research Temps Hired at a Premium

WASHINGTON—James Welty is a professor of mechanical engineering at Oregon State University. But for the past 16 months he has been living on the East Coast under a special program that brings academics temporarily into government service. Welty works at the Department of Energy, reviewing grant proposals, setting up engineering meetings, and advising other scientists. He is one of 970 researchers currently on detail to the federal government under the Intergovernmental Personnel Act, whic

By | May 4, 1987

WASHINGTON—James Welty is a professor of mechanical engineering at Oregon State University. But for the past 16 months he has been living on the East Coast under a special program that brings academics temporarily into government service.

Welty works at the Department of Energy, reviewing grant proposals, setting up engineering meetings, and advising other scientists. He is one of 970 researchers currently on detail to the federal government under the Intergovernmental Personnel Act, which allows agencies to hire university faculty for a short time at salaries higher than they could earn as civil servants.

The federal agencies gain access to top-flight researchers who are familiar with the most recent developments in their fields. Such professors are often reluctant to come to Washington, government officials say, because of the government's restrictive salary schedule.

Researchers, in turn, enjoy a firsthand look at the federal agencies that fund their work. They expect such experience to serve them and their institutions well when they return.

The program, begun in 1970, has recently come under fire from some members of Congress. Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the National Science Foundation, has 1charged that salaries paid to the short-term workers are excessive. He is considering legislation, to be attached to NSF's appropriation this year, that would require universities to pay part of the cost of the researchers' salaries.

Welty receives the same salary at the Energy Department—in the low $80,000s—that he would earn at his university, with the cost divided between the two institutions. The figure is considerably higher than most government civil servants receive, and not too far below the $99,500 paid to Energy Secretary John Herrington and other Cabinet officials.

Some agencies take on even higher salaries. Six scientists at NSF earn more than the $89,500 paid NSF's director, Erich Bloch, topped by the $134,611 in salary and benefits to University of Minnesota engineer E.M. Sparrow. In all but one case, NSF pays the entire amount. The National Institutes of Health employs three scientists with salaries in the vicinity of the $89,500 paid Director James Wyngaarden, and three more who earn at least $100,000. However, the cost is divided equally between NIH and their universities.

The Personnel Act was designed to let local governments with fiscal problems get help from federal budget experts. But enterprising research program directors quickly seized on a clause that enabled them to hire university faculty.

A total of 13,119 people, many of them scientists and engineers, have participated in the program, according to the federal Office of Personnel Management. The Department of Health and Human Services has hired the largest number—2,695—followed by the Department of Agriculture, the Department of the Army and the Environmental Protection Agency. NIH has employed about 900 scientists over the years, with a current roster of 90.

In-House Advisers

The participants perform a variety of functions for the agencies, according to Richard Stephens, director of university programs for the Department of Energy's office of energy research. His office currently employs eight scientists. "They are technical experts," he said. "They are really consultants. They are almost in-house science advisers."

At most agencies, a program manager selects a researcher to work with at the start of a project. The choice is usually made through personal contacts or by advertising in the relevant scientific journals. Welty, for example, knew through mutual acquaintances the DOE program director who hired him.

Although working for the agencies, faculty members remain employees of their universities and, thus retain their total compensation, including salary and employee benefits, as well as opportunities for outside consulting. The federal agency reimburses the university for some or all of the total compensation based on which organization derives the most benefit from the arrangement.

"It's not surprising that we, as the receiving institution, are so interested in getting someone that we may pay the full cost," explained Margaret Windus, personnel director at NSF. The Foundation has 50 faculty members on its payroll.

"For us, it's a good deal even though we're paying the cost," added James M. Wyckoff, a liaison officer in the National Bureau of Standards' office of research and technical applications. "We get well-qualified people we couldn't hire otherwise." He said the arrangement also allows the agency, which employs 19 scientists currently, to establish "an ongoing link with academic programs that doesn't end when the specialist goes back to campus."

"I have gained a lot of insight into the whole federal funding picture of energy research for universities," said Welty, who expects to return to Oregon State at the end of the year. "That's to the benefit of my institution, my department, and, undoubtedly, myself."

Rothman is a staff writer for Education Week.

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