The policy-making board of the National Science Foundation has criticized 22 universities -- including Catholic and Georgetown -- for seeking direct appropriations from Congress that "circumvent" the usual procedures for awarding grants through competitive peer review.
The National Science Board, which is appointed by the President, charged that the special appropriations replace scientific "merit review" with a "purely political process."
In the past two years, the board said, more than $100 million has been obtained from Congress for laboratory construction at universities. The board said some of the funds "were diverted from other scientific activities that had been selected on the basis of their merit."
A report issued by the board specifically lists the $13.9 million appropriated for a new laboratory at Catholic University as an example of the "special interest" funding the board deplores. The report also mentions Georgetown's request for a $160 million "national demonstration project" to generate electricity with fuel cells, saying it is among seven congressionally aided projects that are not "crucial" for basic research.
So far Georgetown has received $820,000 for a feasibility study of the fuel cell venture. Last year its efforts to get more money were unsuccessful.
The National Science Foundation is the federal government's chief agency for supporting basic scientific research. Its board is composed of leading scientists from industry and universities.
Information officers at Catholic and Georgetown universities said yesterday that no school officials were available to comment on the statement by the NSF board.
However, after similar criticism by several academic groups last year, the Rev. William F. Byron, president of Catholic University, strongly defended his school's efforts to get funds from Congress.
Byron said that decisions on how to appropriate federal research money to various projects not only affect the development of science but also "must include some recognition of their economic and employment impact and their geographical distribution."
"The way we do that in this country is by the political process," Byron said.
Catholic University hired a lobbying firm to help obtain funds for the laboratory; Georgetown has two senior administrators in a permanant "federal relations" office. Last spring Charles Meng, Georgetown's vice president for administration, said the university's "lobbying efforts . . . are pretty straightforward. I think you'll find they're in line with what every large university and corporation does."
However, an NSF committee said that by lobbying Congress for funds directed to their own schools, the universities "could well threaten the integrity of the U.S. scientific enterprise" and undercut its health. The National Science Board endorsed the committee's report.