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Always Let a Thousand Scientific Flowers Bloom : Why a pluralistic funding model works far better than any centralized one

American world dominance in science since World War II is no accident. It was fostered by generous support for basic research by numerous federal agencies. If a scientist with a good idea found one door closed, there was usually another agency willing to listen. A major player, particularly during the Cold War, was the Defense Department. Its Office of Naval Research and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (now called ARPA) quietly supported farsighted fundamental research that went well beyond the military’s central mission.

ARPA-backed research into computer networking during the 1960s, for example, led to today’s Internet system. The Defense Department backed top research in materials, mathematics, oceanography, acoustics, lasers and optics, to name a few fields. This role has ebbed somewhat in recent years in favor of the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and NASA. But this pluralistic competitive model of multiple sources of funds, though sometimes inefficient, has obviously worked far better than the centralized science of the former Soviet Union.

MURTHA VS. BROWN: We review this history to give context to the current feud between two influential Democratic congressmen, John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania and George E. Brown Jr. of Colton, Calif. Murtha, powerful chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense, recently ordered a 50% cut in the defense academic research appropriation of $1.8-billion. That sent Chicken Littles from MIT to UCLA scurrying up to Capitol Hill. By last week, however, the Senate Appropriations Committee had restored all but $79 million of the $900-million cut. The final figure will be set by a House-Senate conference, where Murtha is likely to get a few ounces of flesh, perhaps about $200 million in cuts.

What is going on? Murtha has said scientists must also take their lumps as defense spending dwindles, and that the money is needed to bolster military readiness. But others in Washington suggest more complex motives. Some say he is trying to force the department to cut certain expensive weapons programs, others that he is angry over allegations of fraud in science and misuse of “overhead” money paid to universities for research.

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EARMARKING VS. MERIT: But it probably also has something to do with the bitter dispute between Murtha and Brown over earmarking of research money by Congress. Until about 1980, such funds were allocated almost entirely on the basis of merit, by the individual agencies. Then it dawned on Congress that science funding is pork, and powerful members started to bypass the agencies and fund local institutions directly.

Thus, last year Congress earmarked $281 million of defense research money and--surprise, surprise--more than half if it went to Pennsylvania. Most of that--surprise again--to Johnstown, Pa., Murtha’s hometown ($40 million from the Navy, for example, to the National Center for Excellence in Metalworking). Brown, chairman of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, opposes earmarking and has threatened to subpoena Defense records to learn the full extent of Murtha’s logrolling.

In all this, some might say Defense should get out of science and leave it to the NSF. But top academic leaders like President Thomas E. Everhart of Caltech, which gets 15% of its research budget from Defense, say that agency is far better equipped to focus on certain physics and engineering research. “They can take rifle shots better,” he says. The Navy still has a fundamental interest in oceanography and is a major backer of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla. And the President’s science and technology policy, due out next week, is expected to rely considerably on Defense expertise.

Much can be improved in the way research dollars are spent and overseen, given recent reports of scientific fraud. But good research depends on stable, long-term sources of support. The system has served well and should not be subjected to the kind of sudden shocks proposed by Murtha, whatever the motive.

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Dollars for Research Federal sources of support for research and development at colleges and universities for 1994 fiscal year:

National Institutes of Health: 52%

National Science Foundation: 14%

Dept. of Defense: 13%

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NASA: 6%

Agriculture Dept.: 4%

Environmental Protection Agency: 2%

Dept. of Education: 1%

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All other: 3%

Source: American Assn. for the Advancement of Science


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