WASHINGTON—Since taking office as the Education Department’s top research official, Chester E. Finn Jr. has stressed the importance of peer review in producing worthwhile research.
At his urging, the Congress is likely to approve legislation requiring the department’s office of educational research and improvement to rely on peer review to ensure the quality of the work it finances.
But a new department policy that places strict limits on the use of independent experts to review grant applications will make the effort to establish an adequate peer-review system more “difficult,” said Mr. Finn, the assistant secretary for the O.E.R.I.
Undersecretary Gary L. Bauer, in a move he said is aimed at cutting department spending, has instructed officials to rely on federal employees and unpaid outside reviewers. Last year, the department spent $2.1 million on field readers; Mr. Bauer’s goal is to reduce the annual cost to between $500,000 and $1 million.
“I am convinced that the department can achieve significant cost savings [in application-review procedures] without jeopardizing the integrity of the review process,” said Mr. Bauer in a Feb. 28 memorandum obtained by Education Week.
Cutting these costs is “perfectly appropriate and unavoidable,” said Mr. Finn. He called the situation “just a fact of life in the federal government in 1986.”
Mr. Bauer, who oversees the day-to-day management of the department, commented that “there are numerous federal employees in other departments who have expertise in other areas that we can call on.”
His memo said, “I expect to be informed in writing of the compelling [reasons]” if an office requires an exemption from the new policy. He added that additional funds for reviewers will come out of the discretionary programs’ budgets.
Costs for outside reviewers typically include honoraria, travel funds, and other expenses. Mr. Finn, who called the new policy appropriately flexible, lauded efforts to curb such expenses. “We need to be exploring alternatives to plane tickets,” he said.
Mr. Bauer’s memo lists four guidelines for judging 1986 discretionary grants and fellowship awards:
- Only one nonfederal reader will be used in each review group; departmental staff members and personnel from other agencies, serving on a “non-reimbursable basis,” will round out each panel.
- Nonfederal reviewers’ evaluations will be mailed to the department; for such mailings, the memo added, “restrictions on the use of first-class mail” will be waived.
- Outside readers will not receive any compensation. “There are numerous qualified scholars, practitioners, and experts willing to serve in return for the prestige and the opportunity to contribute to the decisionmaking process.”
- These readers’ travel and expenses will be kept to a minimum.
Mr. Finn, noting the paradox of trying to establish a strong peer-review system while slashing administrative costs, said that the two goals “are not fatally contradictory, just difficult.”
He added that experts should continue to review department-funded work but forego compensation “out of professional responsibility.”
Critics, however, said that the need to cut costs threatens the department’s work.
“The one basis for quality for the department is peer review because they’ve taken away all the other checks and balances,” said S. Gray Garwood, staff director of a House education subcommittee, who added that budget cuts have forced a reduction in such control mechanisms as site visits. He called the new policy “penny-wise and pound-foolish.”
“Peer review for the most part means outsiders,” commented Laurie Garduque, a spokesman for the American Educational Research Association. “There are not many staff scientists or methodologists running around the Education Department.”
James J. Lyons, legislative counsel of the National Association for Bilingual Education, suggested that the policy may have less to do with fiscal concerns than with officials’ desire to monitor more closely the grant-making process.
The office of bilingual education and minority-languages affairs, which is implementing Secretary William J. Bennett’s bilingual-education initiative, conducts the department’s biggest discretionary-grant competition.
Bruce M. Carnes, deputy undersecretary, is coordinating implementation of the policy. He was an aide to Mr. Bennett at the National Endowment of the Humanities when the N.E.H. instituted cost-cutting review procedures.
A version of this article appeared in the April 09, 1986 edition of Education Week