The National Science Foundation will investigate charges that sections of a New York state team’s winning proposal to build a national earthquake research center were copied from reports written by California scientists.
The $25-million award to the New York scientists was made last month in the face of fierce competition from a consortium of California universities that sought to locate the research center in Berkeley. When the grant was announced by the National Science Foundation it provoked cries of protest from academic and political leaders here, who contended that California’s expertise and leadership in earthquake research made it the logical choice.
In recent weeks the controversy has escalated as Sens. Pete Wilson (R.-Calif.) and Alan Cranston (D.-Calif.) successfully sought an investigation of the decision by the General Accounting Office. The senators also threatened to introduce legislation blocking financing of the center, now planned for the State University of New York at Buffalo.
The charge of copying was made in a Sept. 19 letter to the foundation by Paul C. Jennings, chairman of Caltech’s division of engineering, who has specialized in seismic research. Jennings asked that the agency reopen the award review process.
On Monday, Wilson’s office released that letter and a reply from National Science Foundation Director Erich Bloch saying that the agency regarded the issues as “serious” and would begin an investigation.
In his letter, Jennings said he discovered the alleged copying when he perused a borrowed copy of the successful New York proposal for the facility, to be known as the Earthquake Engineering Research Center. “You can imagine my surprise,” Jennings wrote, “when I discovered my own words!”
Jennings then listed about 50 lines or parts of lines that had been taken from material he had co-authored in a 1984 document published by the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute in El Cerrito. Ironically, the allegedly copied material appeared in a section by the New York proposal titled “Why Buffalo?”
Also discovered was another section allegedly taken from material written by Wilfred Iwan, a Caltech professor who was one of the principal scientists involved in the California effort to win the research center.
Jennings concluded, “I am sure you agree that what has happened is deplorable and goes far beyond the ‘cut-and-paste’ composition that sometimes occurs in proposal writing. I think such copying should disqualify a proposal.”
The authors of the New York proposal could not be reached for comment. However, the provost of the State University of New York at Buffalo--the facility that will administer the center under the science foundation grant--acknowledged that some copying took place.
“I look at it (the evidence) and say, ‘Yeah, there’s some truth to the charge,’ ” said William R. Griener, the provost. “But the more important issue is the intention and the context in which it occurred. It falls in the category of an oversight. If this were a student I would rap his knuckles but I wouldn’t lower his grade.”
Nonetheless, Griener said his office was beginning an investigation of its own to determine what member of the New York team did the copying. “I’m not sure that will be possible at this point. It was an extraordinarily hectic period of time.”
The competition over the right to construct the earthquake research center involved great prestige for the winners, who would see a large portion of the country’s earthquake research funds flowing into their institutions. In the request for applications, the National Science Foundation said it would expect its $25 million to be matched by local and state funds for a total of $50 million.
An original eight applications were pared down to California and New York for the final round. Both states offered matching funds but a part of California’s proposal involved goods and services to be provided by participating universities. New York’s proposal was all cash.
When it is completed, the Earthquake Engineering Research Center will be the nation’s principal facility for the development of buildings designed to withstand the onslaught of a large earthquake and building codes to set the standards for such structures.
In its investigation, the science foundation will be faced with determining the seriousness of the alleged copying. In his letter, Bloch said the foundation had the authority to take action that “could include termination or suspension” of the award if serious fault was found.
However, he declined Wilson’s request to delay disbursement of the initial funds for the facility. Last week the National Science Foundation sent a check for $834,000 to the New York sponsors.
California scientists said they seek to have the competition reopened in a fashion that would give the state a fair hearing, something they believe was missing from the previous competition. Of all the members of the original foundation review committee, they point out, none was from the Far West and only one had a background in earthquake engineering.
Loss of Life Feared
In a letter to the National Science Foundation, the California Seismic Safety Commission argued that choosing scientists who are less than the best in earthquake engineering could eventually result in lost lives. “We can only hope that (the next) earthquake will be slow in coming,” the letter said.
As for the effect of the copying issue on the debate, Iwan of Caltech said, “I think it has to reflect on the quality of the New York proposal. The (National Science Foundation) review panel made a big thing about the originality and initiative of their proposal. I think they now have to ask themselves just where that originality and initiative came from.”
In addition to the State University of New York, the New York group consists of City College of New York, Columbia University, Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory, Cornell University, Lehigh University, Princeton University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
The California consortium includes UC Berkeley, Stanford University, Caltech and USC.