If it looks like pork, smells like pork and has as many calories as pork, can it still taste like filet mignon?

You bet. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- one of the world's premiere research institutions -- squealed "pork barrel politics" when upstart rival Florida State University was awarded a National Science Foundation grant for a center to study high-energy magnetism (the kind of magnets you find in magnetic resonance imagers in hospitals). While NSF review panels said MIT had the better physicists, the state of Florida pledged a package of financial and political support that gave the Tallahassee campus the edge.

"This is science?" hissed one MIT official. "This is real estate development." But Florida State still gets the money -- and it tastes delicious.

This episode is typically cast as your basic clash of the "haves" -- the prestige research universities -- and the "have-nots" -- the Florida States that are grasping for their shot at greatness. It's the classic American challenge: What's the best trade-off between the conflicting desires of preserving excellence and promoting diversity?

"It is a dilemma," says National Academy of Sciences President Frank Press. "From the national point of view, the government gets the best return by investing in the best institution; on the other hand, with funding help, regions have come from behind and become world-class centers of scientific research. Texas is a good recent example of that."

Actually, the argument of excellence versus diversity is a Trojan horse. What's really happening is that we are undergoing a fundamental shift in the reasons we spend billions on science.

Only the blissfully naive or self-deluded believe that society funds basic science for the sake of pushing back the frontiers of knowledge. "Slaking mankind's unquenchable thirst for understanding" might be the cliche', but we all know that the primary reason scientists got money was national security. That military strength comes from scientific superiority was one of the fallouts of World War II. Indeed, the National Science Foundation -- the federal government's civilian funding arm -- didn't start to get serious money until after the Sputnik Shock of 1957.

This national security rationale virtually guaranteed the continued elite status of the MITs, Cal Techs, Harvards, UC Berkeleys and Stanfords. Who wants to place the national security in the applied physics department of Inferior State University?

"If the rationale had been that {high-energy magnetism} made a better bomb, {the center} would have stayed here," says MIT political science professor Harvey Saporsky, who researches the dynamics of science and technology funding. In these post Cold War times, Saporsky argues that national security is fading as a rationale for science funding.

So what's going to replace it? Increasingly, says Saporsky and other science policy experts, the answer is economic development. People point to Silicon Valley and Boston's Route 128 (and the universities at their hub) and argue that good science can be the key to generating economic growth.

Sure, the United States is concerned about "global economic competitiveness," but localities are even more concerned about jobs. Historically, the national security rationale shut out the second-rate or aspiring research institution from funding. But if your rationale is now economic development, why shouldn't Florida or Oregon get a piece of the action? After all, the federal government should give every state the chance to enjoy growth. In other words, this shift from national security to economic growth guarantees that science funding becomes more a function of politicking than dispassionate peer review as states decide that they're entitled to their fair share. "I can see a trend, state by state, building up," says Press of the National Academy of Sciences. "I'm a little bit concerned about blurring the line between funding science and funding economic development."

"There has been an increasing politicization of science funding," says Solomon Golomb, formerly vice provost of research at the University of Southern California, one of the nation's top 20 research universities in terms of funding. "Universities are lobbying the major awards much more than they used to, and they're trying to bypass peer review."

You would think that California, being the nation's largest state and having several of the world's top research universities, would garner the lion's share of federal funding. Not so, mourns Golomb.

"California doesn't have the clout it should have because it has a congressional delegation that doesn't vote as a bloc because of regional differences," he notes. "Texas does well relative to its academic strength because it has a unified congressional delegation and friends in the White House."

What's worse, Golomb adds, "California has over 25 percent of the members of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering, but it only gets about 14 percent of the science funding -- so the government is really under-funding California. North Carolina is only 3 percent of the nation's population, but it wouldn't be satisfied with only 3 percent of the nation's tobacco subsidy."

The increasing politicization of science funding is going to sharpen some regional rivalries and, quite possibly, threaten the status of the nation's top research universities. "There's trouble ahead," fears MIT's Saporsky. It's not unlike the election of Andrew Jackson to the presidency -- the elitists are being done in by the populists who believe in democracy with a small "d."

This trend is inevitable, and it's going to accelerate. Just watch the MITs and University of Californias when they launch the counterattacks because they really have no choice if they don't want to be squeezed.

But the real question is, are these states right? Does great local science assure good local growth? "The issue isn't universities," insists USC's Golomb. "There are other factors that matter far more."

"You need an infrastructure of entrepreneurial faculty, the right local businesses and venture capital," says MIT's Saporsky.

Indeed, look at Los Alamos in New Mexico and the area surrounding Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois and it's clear that great science doesn't guarantee any kind of economic development at all. The idea that seeding regions with science dollars will cause a thousand Silicon Valleys to bloom is silly on its face.

On the other hand, who would have predicted in 1980 that Montgomery County in Maryland would become a hotbed of biotechnology entrepreneurialism thanks to the proximity of the National Institutes of Health? The reality is that Saporsky is absolutely right -- the economic benefits are unpredictable.

But then, so are the results of buying a lottery ticket. What we're going to see in the 1990s is lottery ticket science funding -- with every state in the union hoping it will hit the jackpot. Is this a cost-effective way to maintain global excellence in science? We'll know in about 15 years. We'll start by asking the folks in Tallahassee.

Michael Schrage is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.