DOD Research Grants Face Uncertain Future

WASHINGTON—A Defense Department program that distributed $124 million last year in contracts to university researchers appears to have been a one-time windfall for academic scientists. Its survival, which is uncertain given the pressure to trim military spending and reduce the federal deficit, could hurt other researchers funded by the Pentagon. The University Research Initiative (URI) was created as a way to provide universities with money for equipment, training and research in areas fel

May 4, 1987
Dan Charles
WASHINGTON—A Defense Department program that distributed $124 million last year in contracts to university researchers appears to have been a one-time windfall for academic scientists. Its survival, which is uncertain given the pressure to trim military spending and reduce the federal deficit, could hurt other researchers funded by the Pentagon.

The University Research Initiative (URI) was created as a way to provide universities with money for equipment, training and research in areas felt to have military value. Congress, in a burst of enthusiasm for basic research, added $75 million to the Pentagon's initial $25 million program request. Cuts mandated by the GrammRudman law pared the 1986 appropriation to $90 million, and Congress approved only $34 million for the program in 1987 because the 1986 money was not released until the end of the fiscal year.

Funding for the program was expected to grow each year, supporting a stream of new, multi-year awards. But the high initial level of funding, although it gave the program a flying start, made it unlikely that new awards would be made until the initial grants expired.

Continuing annual appropriations of $90 million to $100 million are needed to fund the multi-year URI contracts at current levels. Pentagon officials warn that, if Congress loses interest in the program, its fickle generosity could turn into a headache for military R&D administrators. The adininistration has requested $93 million for fiscal year 1988, divided about equally between the major services and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

"I suspect the URI's chances in Congress are pretty good," said Ted Berlincourt, Pentagon director of research and laboratory management.

Congressional sources were less optimistic, noting the success of preliminary efforts to hold down the defense budget. "If we're down in that (zero growth) range, it's going to be hard for URI to get additional funds," said a Senate aide.

Continued funding for URI research, meanwhile, translates into less money for other basic research programs as total research funding stays constant. The Army, which hopes to receive $24 million in URI funds in 1988, plans to cut funding for basic research outside its own labs from $75 million currently to $60 million, said Hamed El-Bisi, associate director of Army research and development. The Army also eliminated a $17 million program that allowed researchers at its in-house labs to pursue independent research.

Congressionally mandated cuts in URI would not be cushioned by taking money from other basic research programs, Berlincourt said. Although URI awards are meant to run for up to five years, they can be renegotiated or cancelled if funds are unavailable.

The program's primary goal, according to a report issued by the Pentagon in March, is to promote interdisciplinary research. The report said such teamwork should help translate scientific discoveries more quickly into practical military applications.

Scientists who sought URI contracts were encouraged to budget money for equipment and graduate fellowships. Unless encouraged to do otherwise, noted Robert Ryan of the Office of Naval Research, university researchers "have a net propensity to spend money on people rather than things. That's one reason why we've gotten in trouble," said Ryan, referring to the aging university research infrastructure.

Boost to Teamwork

Successful applicants said the program has given a strong boost to their interdisciplinary research programs. Fred Moavenzadeh, whose Center for Construction Research and Education at MIT received $2.3 million this year under URI, said its emphasis on investments in equipment and education was evident in the way the Army cut his initial proposal. Officials left untouched proposed expenditures of $1 million for new equipment and $600,000 for two-year graduate fellowships, and got MIT to waive the usual overhead charges, effectively doubling the sum Moavenzadeh could spend. The rest of his research budget, however, was trimmed by 30 percent.

The Center of Marine Biotechnology at the University of Maryland received a five-year, $6.7 million award under URI. According to Rita Colwell, a senior scientist at the center, the award is a "very powerful enhancement of our research program" which has helped to establish "a first-rate molecular genetic facility," bringing together molecular biologists, marine biologists, and engineers on such projects as cloning genes from the Chesapeake Bay oyster.

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