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Following the money: Support Schweitzer's push for more research grant oversight - Sunday, January 25, 2009

Following the money: Support Schweitzer's push for more research grant oversight - Sunday, January 25, 2009

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Gov. Brian Schweitzer would like to know: "Are there any more INSAs?"

He posed that question earlier this month while probing into the process of using federal grants to fund university research. The governor met with University of Montana President George Dennison, Montana State University President Geoff Gamble and Commissioner of Higher Education Sheila Stearns to ask for more informative and timely reports on those grants.

For those who haven't heard of it before, INSA stands for Inland Northwest Space Alliance. The private company was spun off the University of Montana's Northern Rockies Center for Space Privatization in 2003 - and gave the university a huge black eye three years later when the Missoulian discovered that the company had not done much more than pay out nearly $1.5 million to its dozen staff members and 18 part-time student workers.

The Northern Rockies Center had landed more than $3 million in noncompetitive grants but - whoops! - the university's top administrators forgot to mention that fact to the Montana Board of Regents. They also failed to mention that the center used part of the funding from NASA - about $1 million - to launch INSA.

The problem was not only that the university's top officials did not get the necessary approval from regents, but that they also could not answer basic questions about how the money was used. All this eventually led to investigations by the FBI and the NASA Office of Inspector General. Fortunately, it also led to a state legislative audit.

The good news is that none of the investigations or audits uncovered any wrongdoing, and the university was never ordered to return any of the money. The bad news is that they did find an embarrassing deficiency in record-keeping on the part of the University of Montana and INSA, and a lack of ethical review by university administrators.

Of course, all this is just water under the bridge now. Or is it?

Schweitzer mentioned that recent national news reports have focused on research grants given to universities that failed to oversee them adequately and subsequently got themselves into hot water with a public that demands to know exactly where its money goes. Seeking to avoid a similar situation in Montana, he is proposing that the universities provide regents with regularly updated lists of their requests for federal earmarks, and report how much they receive and how they use it.

Research grants to the university system have topped $170 million in recent years, and the aim is to increase that amount still more. That's a lot of taxpayer money, and it needs to be tracked carefully. So we hope Montana's universities will lead by example and offer the information readily. We can't think of a single reason why they shouldn't. In fact, Missoulian editorials as far back as June 2006 have been calling for stricter public oversight of such federal funds.

That's why we are happy to hear that Schweitzer has joined the Missoulian's call for more scrutiny over university research grants.

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