Congressional Oversight
by James L. Morrison

[Note: This is a re-formatted manuscript that was originally published in On the Horizon, 1992, 1(4), 11-12. It is posted here with permission from Jossey Bass Publishers.]

Congress has long voted money for influential legislators' pork barrel projects such as roads, dams, and post offices. Then, almost without public notice, Congress extended pork barrel politics to a new domain: science. The result of pork barrel funding of science has been chaotic and subject to political influence. Funds go to everything from support of scientists, to support of congressional whims, with little sense of priorities. Congressional micro-management, not scientifically informed, freezes out innovative ideas and favors big science over little science.

Rather than assigning science allocation to Congress, Joseph Martino, an expert on technology forecasting, agrees with Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA, that it is "far better for research programs to have many sources of money, with a series of mini-dictators to distribute it." Martino recommends additional programs such as greater research support from industry, a stronger patent system, increased US savings rate, improved financial accounting standards, more research support from private foundations, income tax deductions for private funding of research (parallel to deductions for charitable organizations) and the elimination of government actions that discourage support for research (e.g., the proposal to tax advertising revenue for scholarly journals). [Martino, J.P. (1992) Science funding: Politics and pork barrel. New Brunswick NJ: Transaction Publishers. Adapted from Future Survey, (1993, April).]

In late 1991, there were about 1,000 advisory committees of all kinds in the U.S. Federal government, reporting to 57 sponsoring agencies. About half of them are clearly scientific; others could be considered scientific under a looser definition. Their activities include peer review, program advising, ad hoc fact-finding or investigating, and providing advice on broad political-technical issues.

According to Bruce L. R. Smith of the Brookings Institution, successful advisory committees have a clear mandate relating to an issue or problem, an identifiable client or point of access to the agency, a committee chair "on the same political wave-length" as the policymaker, some diversity of outlook, adequate supporting resources, and a pragmatic rationalist mode ("They will almost always have subtly negotiated the terms of what they will say so as to mesh with the goals of their clients").

Science advisory committees have sometimes played significant policy roles vis-a-vis input for governmental agencies, but they also are vulnerable to neglect, misuse, or atrophy. Committees face an increasingly burdensome climate, as the need for technically informed and experienced advisors seems more important than ever. The challenge is to make the advisory system con-tribute to effective government without creating more bureaucratic clutter that prolongs and complicates decisions. Fair balance is needed in the advisory system to find an effective level of creative tension that will nurture debate while avoiding an entrenched old-boy network and the dangers of arrogance and irrelevance. [Smith, B. L.R. (1992). The advisors: Scientists in the policy process. Washington: The Brookings Institution. Adapted from Future Survey, (1993, April).]


Old-boy networks and pork barrel funding of science stifle innovation and ultimately lead to the corruption of the scientific enterprise. Science flourishes in an environment of open debate and peer review. It is incumbent upon all institutions of higher learning to maintain a climate of open debate and creative tension and to remain at arms length from the political process. Unfortunately, the recent controversies at Stanford University regarding the inappropriate use of indirect costs, and at the University of California regarding the multimillion dollar retirement package of their president give the impression that scientific research is just another government supported commodity.

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