In the right place for the wrong reason

September 7, 2001

A clash between science and religion has placed US universities on the political agenda. But, reports Stephen Phillips, higher education has more fundamental issues to which it would like President George W. Bush to turn his attention

Earlier this month, US President George W. Bush made university research the subject of his first television address to the American people. In doing so, the question of whether to fund human embryonic stem-cell research in universities was accorded a distinction reserved for major announcements of state. But apart from where medical research has collided with his administration's religious platform, higher education has had a distinctly low profile since Bush entered the White House in January.

Seven months into his party's term of office, the Republican administration has yet to appoint an official with formal responsibility for universities and colleges. The position of assistant secretary for post-secondary education remains unfilled and US education department officials are unwilling to give a time frame for an appointment.

Universities, meanwhile, are well down the list of legislative priorities while the White House focuses on keeping campaign promises to boost defence spending and funds for primary and secondary schools.

But legislative commitments will thrust higher education onto Bush's agenda sooner or later, according to Terry Hartle, head of government affairs for the American Council on Education, which represents university interests in Washington DC. "During this administration's watch, the plan to double funding for the National Institutes of Health will be realised and the Higher Education Act renewed," he says.

It remains to be seen whether the White House will take an active hand in the upcoming legislation, Hartle says. "Without an assistant secretary, it is hard to shape programmes and the longer it goes on, the less likely it is that the administration will play a major role in the re-authorisation."

The higher education bill, slated for 2003-04, will determine student grants and loans and other funding for the following five years. The administration has pressing problems to address, say educators. "For the first time in a long period, the proportion of students from families in the lowest income group is declining," says Arthur Levine, principal of Columbia University's Teacher's College. He adds that with middle-income parents finding ever more universities beyond their means, student choice is under threat.

Fulfiling a promise made under his "leaving no child behind" election slogan, Bush has added $1 billion (£691 million) to the Pell Grant programme for poor students. But much of the funding will be swallowed by the programme's budget deficit, leaving needy students just $100 a year better off.

Another problem is the decline in university ethnic minority admissions. The administration points to proposed 2002 budgetary provisions to increase funding for black institutions by 6.5 per cent to $245 million and for colleges with large Hispanic enrolment by 5.8 per cent to $72.5 million. But efforts to create more diverse student populations may bring an ideological showdown with the administration on the thorny issue of affirmative action.

Bush's attorney general, John Ashcroft, head of the Department of Justice, is an avowed opponent of affirmative action, and his colleague, solicitor general Theodore Olson, successfully challenged the University of Texas law school's affirmative action policy for black and Hispanic applicants in 1996. Some observers expect the two to lead a justice department crusade against affirmative action. The Supreme Court may also step in with an edict on the legality of affirmative action in university admissions.

Legal challenges to race-conscious admission policies at the universities of Michigan, Washington and Georgia, among others, by white students denied admission have led to conflicting rulings by state courts. Since somewhat ambiguously ruling in 1978 that race may be a criterion for admissions, America's high court has drawn back from intervening in individual cases. But the predominantly conservative nine-member court recently felt sufficiently emboldened to take on a workplace affirmative action case. Moreover, Olson represents the US government's interests to the Supreme Court and is considered its "tenth member".

Other potential political flashpoints between the universities and the Bush administration could come from the work of the bioethics council set up as part of the president's decision to allow circumscribed funding for stem-cell research. The council, reporting directly to the president, will consider the ethical ramifications of embryo and stem-cell research, cloning, gene therapy, genetic screening, assisted reproduction, psychoactive drugs and brain implants.

Amid an unprecedented politicisation of scientific research during his administration, many researchers fear that the council could act as a champion for Bush's conservatism.

The White House's choice to chair the council, University of Chicago bioethicist Leon Kass, is an opponent of human cloning and in vitro fertilisation. "He is the neo-conservative's favourite bioethicist - he navigates the future using landmarks from the distant past," says Arthur Caplan, director of the centre for bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

But James Q. Wilson, emeritus professor of management and public policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, says the council is a response to the moral implications of modern medical science and does not reflect Republican concerns. "Most presidents faced with similar issues would have formed a council," says Wilson, who co-authored a book on human cloning with Kass.

Meanwhile, the future of several promising research areas is on the line. Alongside the White House's recent protracted deliberations over stem-cell research, Bush endorsed a House of Representatives ruling in July outlawing human cloning.

Unless a proposed Senate bill opens a loophole, the ruling carries far-reaching implications for the application of stem cells to treat illnesses. Scientists hope to use stem cells to replace damaged tissue, but patients' bodies are expected to reject stem-cell transplants unless they match their genetic make-up. The cloning ban rules out producing embryos cloned from patients' own cells.

If previous Republican administrations are anything to go by, another field in which the administration may bring its conservative agenda to bear is arts funding. "At times when Republicans put a large emphasis on family values, you get barriers in the arts and humanities," Levine says. The Bush administration has not been afraid to impose its ideological underpinnings on other areas. Courting accusations that it is setting up a theocracy, it has funded Christian groups to supplant government welfare agencies.

While funding for arts and social science research remains a bone of contention, Bush is committed to boosting money for medical science research. Upholding President Clinton's 1998 five-year masterplan to double the National Institutes of Health budget, Bush has pledged to increase funding by 13.5 per cent a year through 2003. This will make a generous $23.2 billion available for university projects next year.

But higher education officials are concerned at the relative neglect of funding for physical sciences. Bush has proposed a meagre 1 per cent increase in funding for the National Science Foundation, which administers physical science research grants. University lobbyists are placing their faith in a proposed House of Representatives bill to double NSF funding over five years. They also have high hopes that new White House science adviser John Marberger, a respected former director of the Brookhaven National Laboratory, will fight their corner.

The next three and a half years are shaping up to be an interesting ride for US higher education. Bush's uncertain first few months in office may be the calm before the storm.

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