Funding Of Two Science Labs Revives Pork Barrel Vs. Peer Review Debate

Controversy over propriety is rekindled as new physics and marine biotech centers make their respective moves to gain federal allocations WASHINGTON--Buried within the 1992 appropriations bill signed last month by President Bush for NASA, the National Science Foundation, and several other federal agencies is an allocation of $43 million to start the building of two new academic research facilities. One--a $211 million observatory to measure gravity waves, to be built at two sites thousands of

Nov 25, 1991
Jeffrey Mervis
Controversy over propriety is rekindled as new physics and marine biotech centers make their respective moves to gain federal allocations
WASHINGTON--Buried within the 1992 appropriations bill signed last month by President Bush for NASA, the National Science Foundation, and several other federal agencies is an allocation of $43 million to start the building of two new academic research facilities.

One--a $211 million observatory to measure gravity waves, to be built at two sites thousands of miles apart--has undergone extensive peer review by scientists and a federal research agency and has been a part of the president's budget for the past two years. The other--a $130 million marine biotechnology center in downtown Baltimore--is a project pushed successfully for the past three years by its home state's congressional delegation.

Maryland's legislators are hardly the first to bypass scientific peer review in a drive for federal funds. Although several reports have documented a multibillion-dollar need to repair and upgrade the country's aging research laboratories, the question of how best to obtain such funds remains unresolved.

Although their projects entered the political process via different routes, the lobbyists hired to promote LIGO and the Columbus marine center say they agree on the right way to fund academic research facilities. In fact, it's hard to tell which project they represent by listening to their words.

"I don't like pork, and I won't do it," says John Moag, a lobbyist with the law firm of Patton Boggs and Blow in Baltimore, who says he's been with the Columbus project "since Day 1. I'm strongly in favor of protecting the peer-review process, and you'll never see me involved in any effort to earmark research funds from the budgets of NSF or NIH."

Yet it was Moag who devised the strategy used to obtain three consecutive years of federal support, totaling $31.5 million, for the $130 million project. It was a contribution recognized by state and local politicians at a pregroundbreaking ceremony on Columbus Day, when they hailed Moag as "one of the best friends this project has."

April Burke, a vice president at the Hill & Knowlton public relations firm in Washington and sole member of the company's academic policy practice, was hired last March to help persuade Congress to start building LIGO with NSF funds. "I'm not a pork person," she says. "I just don't do that type of work."

She says her views on how to fund academic research facilities were shaped during her three years at the Association of American Universities, a coalition of research universities that in 1987 took a stand against the practice of seeking funds for research facilities without going through the peer review process. And Hall Daily, director of government affairs at Caltech, which is a member of AAU, says that her opinion that the pork-barrel approach is wrong was a decisive factor in his institution's choice of lobbyists.

Yet Burke's legislative strategy assumed that Congress was not impressed with the extensive peer review that LIGO had undergone. In fact, the Hill & Knowlton vice president says, such a review might even be counterproductive in the hunt for federal funds.

"We had to make people aware of the project," she says about the dozens of meetings with members of Congress and their legislative aides that she helped arrange for LIGO's director, Rochus ("Robbie") Vogt. "Once the science board said yes and the president put it in his budget, everybody sat back and just waited for it to be funded [rather than lobby Congress for it]." She also took advantage of the fact that 17 states had submitted proposals to be one of the two LIGO sites.

"We tried to communicate that enthusiasm at the local level," she says. Despite the esoteric nature of the project, she notes ironically that the building of LIGO "is not rocket science. There's a lot of interest in creating a high-tech center in their community, and getting LIGO would help them to achieve that goal." To many people, those points may sound strange coming from an advocate of a peer-reviewed project. They seem more in keeping with the traditional rationale for "pork barreling," in which legislators are asked to support a project because of the benefits to their constituents.

Moag uses an argument often made for peer-reviewed projects, namely, that the Columbus center will help improve science and math education across the country, not just in Maryland. "Imagine a line of yellow school buses, filled with inner-city kids from everywhere, rolling into the center and getting a first-hand look at what scientists do," he says. "It'll be like EPCOT Center, only it'll be real."

How much does such advice cost a university? Well, an effective lobbyist isn't cheap. Although both refuse to say how much they bill their clients, Burke says that a major research institution "should be able to get its federal representation done for $100,000 a year." She estimates that between March and October she devoted one-third of her time to LIGO. Moag says that he probably spends 20 hours a week on the Columbus project, and that he has two associates who help him.

--J.M.

Congress held a freewheeling debate on the issue in 1986 after it learned that several universities had persuaded legislators to squeeze these new facilities into the federal budget. With many universities feeling that it is their only chance for such construction funds, the amount of money earmarked for specific academic facilities has grown rapidly, reaching nearly $500 million in the 1991 budget. And each new proposal reignites the controversy.

Many scientists believe that the Laser Interferometer Gravity wave Observatory (LIGO) project took the correct approach--peer review--to obtain federal funding, while the Christopher Columbus Center of Marine Research and Exploration, by asking legislators to play "pork barrel" politics to win a federal contract to boost the state's economy, pursued the wrong path to success.

But the fate of these two projects suggests that, in practice, the two sides in the latest fight over pork barrel vs. peer review may not be very far apart. Indeed, each project has succeeded largely because a prominent researcher, teaming up with a well-paid lobbyist, was willing to take to the political battlefield to turn an ambitious scientific dream into reality.

LIGO is designed to test an aspect of general relativity theory, first proposed by Albert Einstein, that posits the existence of gravity waves from objects in space. LIGO scientists believe they can measure the infinitesimally small forces these waves exert on objects suspended at opposite ends of a 2.5-kilometer vacuum tube on earth. "It's the most esoteric subject you could possibly imagine," says Rochus ("Robbie") Vogt, an astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology, who became LIGO's director in 1987. "And it's the most exciting thing that I could be doing."

The Columbus center will provide a new home for the University of Maryland's Maryland Biotechnology Institute. In addition to the new marine biotech labs, the 11-acre site will house a marine archaeology center that will feature labs and a museum, a hands-on exhibition center, and a computer-based teaching center. The Columbus center is intended to explain the value of marine biotechnology to the public at the same time it enables scientists to work at the cutting edge of an economically important discipline.

"This is a new concept," says University of Maryland microbial ecologist Rita Colwell, who is president of the Maryland Biotechnology Institute and who describes herself as the "intellectual nerve center" of the project. "It's an attempt to do the things that everybody says need to be done--educate the public, be competitive, train schoolchildren, renew the inner cities, bring life and economic development back to the city. If you think of it as a standard laboratory, you're totally missing the point."

LIGO will be built at two sites, thousands of miles apart, by teams from Caltech and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is expected to take five years to complete. The Columbus center, to be located on a pier at Baltimore's Inner Harbor, is scheduled to be occupied in 1994.

On the one hand, LIGO signifies how most scientists think the system of funding research should work: Submit a proposal and obtain the support first of one's peers, then of the sponsoring federal agency, and finally of the White House and Congress. "LIGO underwent a lot of discussions over the years at NSF and within the physics community," recalls Richard Nicholson, executive director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and former assistant NSF director for the mathematical and physical sciences during LIGO's development in the mid-1980s. "It came before the National Science Board more than once, and each year the advisory committee to NSF's physics division said LIGO was its highest priority."

By contrast, the Columbus center is an outgrowth of what is often characterized as the pork-barrel approach: Come up with an idea, enlist the backing of community leaders, and then convince your state delegation to slip it into some dark corner of the federal budget during ensuing congressional deliberations.

Donald Langenberg, chancellor of the University of Maryland and himself a former deputy NSF director, acknowledges that his institution has taken a route scorned by academic purists. "It's an earmarked project--that's the truth, and I'm not going to pretend it's anything " says Langenberg, who in 1987 led a panel of research university presidents, working under the auspices of the Association of American Universities, that issued a report condemning such practices. "For four years I've tried to create a system that would eliminate such earmarks by creating some type of quality review of these projects. But the net result has been zip." A close look at how these two projects were approved by Congress reveals several similarities. At the heart of their success stands a prominent scientist with boundless enthusiasm for the project.

That person worked in tandem with a well-paid lobbyist to carry out the idea. For the LIGO project Vogt teamed with April Burke; for the Columbus center, Colwell joined forces with John Moag. One marine biologist who has worked closely with Colwell in Maryland says her presence has been indispensable. "There are few other people who could pull something like this off," says this science administrator, who requests anonymity. "Not only are her scientific credentials top-notch, but she's also an enormously skilled politician."

Vogt's efforts elicit similar praise. "Robbie made a commitment to this project, and when I called he came," says Hall Daily, Caltech's director of government relations. "He understood his role in transmitting information about the project to Congress, and he really carried the ball."

Burke, a vice president at the Hill & Knowlton public relations firm's office in Washington, says that "Robbie is exactly what you'd want in a scientist coming to [Capitol] Hill. He's enthusiastic, strong-willed, and able to explain things in a way that people can understand."

But a savvy scientist at the helm isn't enough, say people involved with each project. They note that the fate of both initiatives lay in the hands of federal legislators and was shaped by the vagaries of the federal budget process. Here, too, each project followed the same formula: Identify your friends, and push them to support your cause.

For Caltech's Vogt, the need to lobby Congress on the merits of a peer-reviewed project was an unpleasant surprise. He says he thought that convincing his colleagues in the astrophysics community and the powers-that-be at NSF, culminating in a request for $47 million in last year's budget to start construction, would be accepted as proof that the project was worth funding.

But he was wrong. Despite that presidential request, Congress refused in the fall of 1990 to approve any construction monies. And last spring LIGO's prospects--despite a second, $23 million request from the president for fiscal 1992--had not significantly improved. "What I learned from last year's defeat is that I could not assume that the scientific and technical credibility of the project had been certified [sufficiently for Congress] by peer review," says Vogt.

So in March, Caltech hired Burke. It was a bold decision. "Caltech doesn't lobby for much," says Daily, whose government relations position was created just last month in recognition of the time he devoted to LIGO as a public relations officer. Still, Vogt believes Burke's presence made a big difference in the outcome of his campaign.

"Last year NSF didn't want me to muck around in Washington," says Vogt. "They made it clear that I wasn't to jeopardize their chances of getting their entire budget adopted. They have to look out for many projects, not just LIGO.

"So this year it was clear to me, in the same sense as when I go into a court of law I need a lawyer, that when I deal with Congress, I need legislative counseling. And April Burke is simply my lawyer."

Advocates of the Columbus center also recognized that they needed an experienced guide to the system in order to use it effectively. Moag, a lobbyist with the law firm of Patton Boggs & Blow in Baltimore and a former legislative aide to Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), was hired to promote the project as soon as the idea was hatched. He helped devise a political strategy that appealed to the interests of members of Congress.

"The center offers science with near-term applications," says Moag.

"It's understandable, it's practical, and it fits into the environment of the Inner Harbor."

The funding for the Columbus center has been opportunistic as well. In 1989 Hoyer convinced his colleagues to insert $1.5 million for the center into the budget, to be taken from an account in the General Services Administration (GSA) budget normally not used to support research projects. Last year the project, still on the drawing board, received an additional $10 million, split between the Environmental Protection Agency and the GSA. Its most recent installment of $20 million was tacked onto NASA's budget, which Moag says was due to the Maryland delegation's belief that the project should be linked to the space agency's initiative to study the global environment.

That connection is invisible to all but the centers' supporters, however. NASA officials say they know nothing about the project, and Rep. George Brown (D-Calif.), whose House Science, Space, and Technology Committee has jurisdiction over authorizing--but not funding--space programs, says that the Columbus project "appears not to be related to space at all." Moag's explanation is that the appropriations process is flexible enough to add special projects of which the individual agency and the authorizing committee may not be aware.

"We've been very creative in finding funding," he says. "We do a good job of scouring the books to see what bill provides a legitimate basis for this project." Asked where he hopes to find the final $27 million needed from the government for its share of the project, he says, "We're keeping our options open." One key question in the controversy over peer review vs. pork barrel is who should decide whether a particular project merits federal funding. AAAS's Nicholson says that projects like the Columbus center use the wrong judges.

"Coalition building and getting the support of local and state officials is important for political reasons," he says. "But it's not convincing scientists that it's a worthwhile idea. That's what peer review is all about, and that's how the system of funding research is supposed to work."

And some scientists believe that the peer-review process for LIGO was also flawed. They say that the astronomy community never endorsed the project, despite the fact that the project's fundamental character was changed in midstream from being a physics-based detector system to an astronomy-based observatory. "NSF's astronomy advisory committee never discussed it," says Tony Tyson, a research scientist at Murray Hill, N.J.-based AT&T Bell Laboratories and a member of that committee. "The astronomers that I have polled feel overwhelmingly that the project is premature." Tyson expressed similar views last March before the House science committee in testimony that Vogt views as "an unconscionable attack" on LIGO. Tyson says now that his opinion of the project has not changed, but that "since it's a done deal, I wish them the best of luck."

In discussing the Columbus center, Colwell says that there is no federal agency capable of conducting an appropriate review of a project as sweeping as theirs, nor is there one that has sufficient resources to build it. Those obstacles, she says, could be surmounted only by going directly to her state's congressional delegation, which includes Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who is chairwoman of the appropriations subcommittee that controls the purse strings for NASA and NSF.

Mikulski used her clout to insert $20 million in the Senate's version of the 1992 appropriations bill for the agencies under her jurisdiction. And she fought to retain the project in a conference between the Senate and the House, which had its own earmarked projects. Colwell, for one, doesn't see anything wrong with that approach.

"When you build a museum or a science center or a symphony hall, do they do thorough peer review?" Colwell asks rhetorically. "If I were on a peer-review panel [judging this project] and I were comparing this to a standard laboratory building, it would be like comparing apples and oranges. . . . There's no place in the whole federal structure that such a project can go to. There's no existing program, and no place for something as important and creative as this appears to be."