Bill to fund defense research at universities

Yale could receive significant federal funding for bioterrorism research under the latest version of a homeland security bill currently before Congress.

Although Yale will not necessarily benefit from the legislation — which sets aside $2 billion in funding for major universities — the prospect of additional defense research met with mixed reactions from faculty.

Some said they would welcome any new research opportunities the money would provide, while others remained concerned that parts of the bill would change the way research funding is distributed, putting it under the control of the Department of Homeland Security rather than the National Institutes of Health.

“The concerns about bioterrorism are mostly well founded, and so federal money inevitably should and will be used to address the many aspects of biodefense,” said Ronald Breaker, a professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology.

The legislation — which would establish a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security — has already passed the House and two bills are currently pending in the Senate. Upon approval, it would create an Office of Science and Technology within the Homeland Security Department that would determine which universities and private research institutions would receive grants and funding from the government.

The House legislation calls for a research proposal peer review group in order to allow universities, private research institutions, and companies to receive approval and adequate funding for their projects. In addition, the House approved the creation of a separate Homeland Security Institute that would work together with universities and industries to study any weaknesses in the national infrastructure.

Although the House legislation has received optimistic responses from many involved in scientific research, some university officials are reluctant about one of the bills, the Gramm-Miller bill, pending in the Senate.

Senators Phil Gramm and Zell Miller, authors of the bill, proposed taking $1.5 billion of federal funding for bioterrorism research from the NIH and putting it under the control of the Department of Homeland Security.

“I think that within the total federal budget, [money] should not be taken from the NIH to fund research in universities,” said Robert Macnab, director of undergraduate studies for the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry.

Other researchers said they worry that politicians — instead of scientists at the NIH — would probably run the proposed Department of National Homeland Security. Robert Wyman, director of undergraduate studies for MCDB, said that if the money were put under the control of the Department of National Homeland Security, the research funding would be distributed based on political decisions.

“The NIH has such a long history of being excellent and professional,” he said. “The money [for bioterrorism research] should definitely go to them.”

The Senate bill proposed by Sen. Joseph Lieberman calls for a council made up of academic and industrial experts to advise the undersecretary of the proposed Office of Science, who would be responsible for distributing the funds to research institutions and universities. It also proposes the creation of the Security Advanced Research Projects Agency, or SARPA. This agency would be responsible for coordinating the distribution of $200 million in new funding to universities, institutions and industries, for specific security research aims.

While some professors were enthusiastc about the possibility, others remained skeptical.

“The research community in the life sciences is really not accustomed to dealing with research that relates to the weaponization of biology,” Breaker said. “It is hard for me to imagine that all universities will be avidly pursuing funding for such research programs.”

But, Breaker said, a university-based drug discovery center or a university-run research effort in nanotechnology — both possible under the bill — would benefit medicine and basic science while providing advances in technology that could be used in combat.

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