Bill sets up grant database

Congress passed a bill late last week that will set up an online database identifying about $1 trillion in federal grants and contracts, some of which are appropriated to Yale and other universities.

The database, which will feature a Google-like search engine, is largely intended to bring transparency to the government’s allocation system, in which funds are sometimes earmarked for specific institutions — such as universities — without much formal review. While Yale’s accounting practices for federal funding have recently come under fire, records indicate that the University accepts few of the earmarks that the database is intended to target.

The bill — called the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act — will supplant various databases currently available online with a central, more easily searchable database of federal awards worth more than $25,000. Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican who co-sponsored the bill, said the project will shed light on government spending for special interests, including educational institutions.

“American taxpayers have been generous supporters of higher education, and they have a right to know whether federal research dollars should be allocated on the basis of merit or political considerations,” Coburn said in a press release last week. “In the long term, higher education earmarking may seriously erode our nation’s research edge and ability to compete in a global economy by putting politics ahead of sound science.”

In a letter this month to Coburn, who requested information on earmarks from over 100 universities, Yale Vice President and General Counsel Dorothy Robinson stated that five University projects were funded through $3.3 million in earmarks since 2000. The programs — a small fraction of the 2,500 sponsored projects active at Yale — included a school development effort, ovarian cancer screening, and research on Lyme disease.

But University officials said that in general Yale has a policy of avoiding federal earmarks, as good science should be supported by peer review rather than Congressional interests.

“Yale has a longstanding policy of not seeking earmarks,” Robinson wrote in the letter. “We believe that allocating federal research funds on the basis of merit, as judged by scientific peers, is most likely to fund the best projects and, in turn, lead to the greatest return on public investment in science.”

The few individuals who received earmarks accepted them because the projects benefited the New Haven community or because external support for the project was lacking, Robinson wrote.

Congress’ focus on accountability in higher education comes at a time when Yale is busy overhauling its own accounting system for federal funding. At the end of June, the University received subpoenas for documents from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation, which together provide over 90 percent of Yale’s research funding each year.

Deputy Provost Charles Long said criticism of the way universities use their funding has become “a big theme” in government.

“Once you start looking at it, everybody comes up with ideas about how do it better,” Long said. “It means that we have to look carefully at all our systems and our procedures and make sure they’re as detailed and as accurate as possible.”

The database of federal appropriations will allow users to compile complete lists of contracts or grants related to a specific company or topics, including the Congressional sponsors. Under the bill, the program must be online by 2008.

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