'Pork Barrel' Means More Labs, Jobs

WASHINGTON—Seven universities and one hospital will receive $84.1 million this year in Energy Department funds to build research facilities. The congressional largesse, taken from funds initially budgeted for uranium enrichment programs, will mean hundreds of new jobs and more than one million additional square feet of laboratory, hospital and office space for American scientists. Critics see the appropriation as the latest example of "pork-barrel science"

By | January 12, 1987

WASHINGTON—Seven universities and one hospital will receive $84.1 million this year in Energy Department funds to build research facilities. The congressional largesse, taken from funds initially budgeted for uranium enrichment programs, will mean hundreds of new jobs and more than one million additional square feet of laboratory, hospital and office space for American scientists.

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.

Catching Up

The use of multiple sources, however, hasn't eased the controversy over the proper role of the federal government in supporting university research facilities. And the competition for funds is fierce. (The Scientist was unable to substantiate persistent rumors of facilities built with federal funds that lie idle because of an impoverished research program and lack of staff.)

"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."

Westgate is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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:
  • $3 million toward a $32-million Center for Molecular Medicine and Immunology at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark. The 110,000 square-foot center will accommodate 150 new scientists, technicians and clinical staff in such areas as molecular genetics, nuclear medicine and immunobiology. The university will seek state and private funds to operate the Center, according to development director Robin Kohn.
  • $5 million toward a $22-million Center for Science and Engineering at Arizona State University at Tempe. The seven-story facility will house classrooms, offices, and laboratories for the physical and life sciences as well as such high-technology fields as automatic manufacturing, telecommunications and artificial intelligence. The University; represented in Washington by the lobbying firm of Cassidy and Associates, Inc., hopes to begin construction in the spring of 1988 and has already raised $54 million of a scheduled $120 million for the Center and other projects.
  • $14.8 million for a new pediatric teaching center at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in Philadelphia. Some 150 new staff members are expected be added by the time the $72 million, 183-bed facility is completed in September 1989. The Hospital, represented in Washington by Cassidy and Associates, Inc., and F.R. Wojdak and Associates, also expects "to explore alternative energy technologies," according to spokesperson Gretchen Sennott.
  • $12.3 million for the Center for Nuclear Imaging Research at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The money will go toward construction, scheduled begin this spring, as well as to purchase positron emission tomography and magnetic resonance imaging equipment. "There is no other facility in the world that will concentrate so strongly in cardIovascular research," said Gerald Pohost of the University's medical school. Officials expect to make "significant additions" to the staff from relevant medical research areas.
  • $3.8 million toward "energy related elements" of the new Center for Excellence in Education at Indiana University in Bloomington. The three-story, 140,000-square-foot building, which has already received $6 million from the Department of Education, "will serve as a model of energy conservation for the nation," said University spokesperson Ron Levenberg. Construction is expected to begin in two years. The University is represented in Washington by Cassidy and Associates, Inc.

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