NIE Chief Plans To Cancel Research Contracts

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Washington--The new director of the National Institute of Education (nie) last week told the directors of the nation's 17 federally supported regional education laboratories and research centers that he intends to terminate their five-year contracts one year early--by Dec. 1, 1983 for 15 of the laboratories and centers, and by Dec. 1, 1984 for the other two.

Edward A. Curran, who became director of nie last fall, made the announcement in letters sent to the directors of each of the laboratories and centers. Mr. Curran, a Reagan appointee, also elaborated on a decision to end a longstanding federal policy of making noncompetitive grants and contracts to the 17 research institutions.

Under the proposed change in policy, the major regional centers would be required to participate in an open competition for feder-al research awards beginning in fiscal year 1984.

The decision to "phase out" federal support for the 17 regional research institutions on such short notice may force the laboratories and centers--some of which support the leading researchers in their fields--to be dismantled completely, according to the directors of several of them.

Decision Made for Two Reasons

The nie director said, both in the letters and in a coolly received speech before the American Educational Research Association (aera) in New York City last week, that the decision to terminate the so-called ''set-asides" for the laboratories and centers was made for two reasons.

First, he said, a report accompanying the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981 called for more competition in the awarding of research contracts. And sec-ond, he contended, the steady decrease over the years in nie's funding level has caused the funds "committed" to the research laboratories and centers to increase from 25 percent of a $136-million budget in 1973 to 52 percent of nie's $53.38-million budget for 1982.

(The budget report's provision, which does not have the force of law, says that "... the Regional Educational Laboratories and Educational Research Centers ... shall, upon completion of existing contracts, receive future funding in accordance with government-wide competitive bidding procedures....")

However, officials of the aera and representatives of the 17 laboratories and centers contend that Mr. Curran's proposal amounts to a violation of nie's five-year contracts with the research institutions.

The directors of the laboratories and centers and other members of the education-research community seem to agree with the Reagan Administration on the principle of competitive bidding for research grants and contracts. But many express deep dissatisfaction with the timetable Mr. Curran has devised and a concern about his motives for ending the contracts.

Rumors of the letter and of remarks made by Mr. Curran in the past about possible future research topics he would favor for nie--including the consequences of tuition tax credits and the effect "race and gender quotas" on learning--caused a stir at the aera meeting.

One aera official said, "We are concerned with what Curran will do with the money. Is he trying to get the $28 million that goes to labs and centers off his back so he can fund the Right's agenda through means unknown?"

Mr. Curran last week declined to comment on the reactions to his proposal.

However, in testimony last week before a Senate subcommittee, Mr. Curran gave no indication of how the competition will work or what the research agenda will include. "The process of deciding what to study is evolving," he said.

Although the directors of the laboratories and centers contend they have five-year contracts, Mr. Curran told the Senate appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services, and education that an analysis conducted by the office of the Education Department's general counsel says the contracts could be ended after three years.

In the past, the work of the laboratories and centers was reviewed after three years and their contracts were automatically extended for two more years if the review proved favorable.

The eight regional laboratories (designed to examine problems determined by a regional constituency) and nine research centers (designed to address educational problems of national scope), were formed beginning in 1964 under the authority of the Cooperative Research Act of 1954 and subsequent amendments to the act contained in Title IV of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

The quality of the work done by the 17 federally assisted research institutions is generally considered to vary widely.

But many educators believe that collectively they provide leadership in strengthening the quality of the education-research field. And they argue that some of the centers are doing the best work in the field and have been responsible for signifi-cant improvements in recent years in such areas as school finance and early-childhood development.

One aera official said in New York last week that the schedule proposed by Mr. Curran, which would force a premature conclusion to research now in progress at the 17 research institutions, is "just too fast and capricious."

In a formal statement they plan to present to Mr. Curran at a forthcoming meeting, the leaders of the aera protest the proposal's failure to involve the education community and researchers outside the nie staff in the development of new priorities. The association's leaders also contend that the decision to end the five-year contracts now will waste much of the research now in progress and will probably end up in court. Moreover, they say, the planning schedule "does not allow nie staff time to develop high quality procurements."

David Florio, director of government and professional liaison for the aera, said, "We support the idea of competition, but we do not think it should be used to destroy institutional agreements."

He added: "We support a process which will first reward funding through competition and peer review, by which we mean review including others from the educational-research community, educators, and others."

The aera has devised an alternate schedule which allows the laboratories and centers to complete their current contract before entering the competition for future contracts. The association's proposal also allows for greater involvement by the education community in drawing up new research priorities.

aera officials also asserted last week that Mr. Curran's proposal jeopardizes all "programmatic" education research--that is, research on a single topic by a large number of people over an extended period of time.

Mr. Curran said in his speech before the aera in New York, "In both research and practice, real creativity almost always comes from individuals rather than institutions. In general, the best tactic for the Institute might be to make 10 separate awards to the 10 best scholars on a given topic, wherever they may be, rather than write one big contract with a single institution.

"This does not mean that institutions are never appropriate. ... There will always be some research topics most appropriately addressed by teams rather than individuals, and projects which by their very nature will take more than one year to complete.

'Essential Criteria'

"But in every case," Mr. Curran continued, "the essential criteria should be the work of the particular project and the qualifications of the investigators, not the institutional well-being of the organization housing the project or employing the investigators. ..."

There appears to be confusion within nie itself about what Mr. Curran means. And some staff members say they are concerned over the research agenda being proposed by Mr. Curran; there has been no discussion of it with the staff, according to one agency official who asked not to be named.

"The nature of the subjects is a mystery to everyone here," said the source.

Joseph Schneider, director of the Council for Educational Development and Research (cedar), an organization which represents 16 of the 17 laboratories and centers, said, "The biggest concern for us is their agenda. I have no concern about winning contracts [under the new system]. We endorse competition. What scares me is what we are competing for. We cannot afford [to have] Curran going off on a 'New Right' agenda."

'Invitation to Phase Out'

Regarding the timetable outlined in Mr. Curran's letter he said, "It's essentially an invitation to phase out. I don't think you will see a director taking up the invitation."

The letter asks the laboratory and center directors for a "review of your organization's accomplishments to date," "proposed continuations of existing work for FY 1983," "proposed new projects to be completed within FY 1983," and "plans for phasing out work supported under nie noncompetitive awards."

The letter also says, "The review that we plan will be somewhat dif-ferent from the one that was originally envisioned for your third year under the policy of non-competitive longterm support."

Although the laboratory and center directors interviewed were confident of their legal claim to a full five-year contract, their reactions to Mr. Curran's letter varied.

Richard P. Schutz, executive director of the Southwest Regional Laboratory for Educational Research and Development in Los Alamitos, Calif.--an institution that receives 40 percent of all its funds from nie--said of the letter, "We have no doubt this is a five-year contract. Our first question is: How are you going to honor that contract?

"Before too long," he said, "they're going to have to come out with their legal authority for this decision. It's hard for me to believe that the general counsel came out as strongly as Curran apparently thinks they did. The contract goes into fine detail."

An official of another center said, "If we took nie to court, they would put our FY 1983 money into escrow until the litigation is completed. We do not have any way of holding on [without the money], so the centers would dry up."

Robert Glaser, co-director at the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh, said, "Dismantling prestigious research institutions would make the country look ridiculous."

Labs and Centers

Mr. Glaser said he is in favor of the concept of competition but with a longer phaseout time and added, "The phaseout plan should make some discrimination between high- and low-quality labs and centers."

He added: "I think there are a number of research organizations which will try to convince Curran to make the timetable more realistic."

Mr. Glaser said that approximately 70 percent of his organization's budget is funded by nie

George B. Lawrence, executive director of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems in Boulder, Colo.--the only laboratory not affiliated with cedar--also said that "our major concern is that we have a contract with nie for five years."

"We're not disturbed with the concept of competing," he said, "but we've interpreted in his letter that he's intending to do away with special institutional relationships period. That bothers us.

"But we probably won't fight it. Our position is if that's the way they're going to be then we probably shouldn't be dealing with them."

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