WHEN 40 well-regarded universities announced last week that they would accept no more government research money that had been awarded directly by Congress instead of through the formal review process, it may have looked as though they were making a sacrifice to stand against government corruption. The reality, though, is less dramatic and also less sacrificial. The universities in question are all members of the American Association of Universities, which is disturbed by the increasing tendency of colleges to seek "earmarks" -- to skip the standard competitions for grant money held by the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and other agencies and go straight to their congressmen, who appropriate the money as for any other pork-barrel project. The AAU group says this practice could "threaten American research" by undermining the principle of money for merit in science -- "merit" being defined, as it traditionally has been in the sciences, by a group of other scientists in the field.

But this is a fight between institutions of higher learning. The universities that have turned to earmarking retort that these "merit reviews" are an elitist charade in which a small group of wealthy, well-known and well-equipped institutions keeps getting more and more money, while the small and obscure universities fall further and further behind. In addition, these same universities that get the money are in many cases -- by virtue of name, history and steadily improving research facilities -- the ones most likely to have other sources of money besides the government to fall back on, sources such as an endowment fund or a large group of successful, well-heeled alumni. This description of the "haves" comes uncomfortably close to being a description of the AAU membership and makes their "moratorium" on seeking earmarked funds a dubious gesture. If everyone could get funds through "merit review" as easily as they can, earmarking would be far less prevalent.

Not that the earmarking process is any model of equity. This is the other half of the problem. For in some respects, what is going on is a conflict over two different ways of distributing money. Schools located in districts whose representative or senator happens to sit on an appropriations committee clean up; so do schools that can afford to hire one of a new flock of lobbyists specializing in academic pork. There is no follow-up or review, so high-tech projects sometimes go to schools that have no facilities to pursue them, new labs to schools that cannot possibly afford to operate them. Others go to schools that have never bothered to apply to the existing programs. Even though this is money added to the formally awarded funds, the AAU rightly points out that such widespread abuse could erode political support for research money in general. It also notes the damage done to the image of academic research as it becomes just another special interest group sending in its lobbyists to logroll.

The underlying problem is the dual purpose of federal science grants: to get the best possible scientific research for the money (which favors funding projects and buildings at the universities with the best facilities and the best talent) and to support and develop the overall research enterprise of the country (which favors funding projects at universities that need economic and technological development). The trouble is that the current competitive review system has given the first goal disproportionate emphasis for many years. Universities of all stripes are agreed that they need more federal money, a lot more, to build new laboratories and academic buildings -- the last big infusions, in the post-Sputnik era, dried up in the early '70s -- but the odds of passing such a program in the current budget climate are minuscule. In its absence, to redress the balance, the academic community might consider expanding and emphasizing the several programs that already exist in agencies such as the NSF -- for "developing institutions," for young scientists, and so forth -- that take into account other criteria than what the "haves" call pure merit. You can't stop people from going to their congressmen for money, but you can help by acknowledging the shortfalls in what is currently the only game in town.