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Concern grows over expansion of earmarking.

In 1985, John Silber, the president of Boston University, justified universities going directly to Congress for financial support by arguing that peer review functioned as an "old-boy" network that deserved to be bypassed because it put most federal support for research into the hands of about 20 institutions (SN: 8/3/85, p.71).

Back then, the practice seemed exceptional. But not anymore. In 1980, Congress earmarked less than $11 million for specific academic projects and set aside none the next year. But in fiscal year (FY) 1992, Congress approved almost $708 million to support 499 such projects. During the past decade, almost $2.5 billion in federal support for academia has skirted traditional merit review, says Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

At one time, most earmarks set aside funds for buildings. "But there are more and more instances where [they're] going for research," says Joel Widder, director of legislative affairs for the National Science Foundation. According to Brown's committee, 42 percent of the $708 million earmarked in 1992 supported research and development.

Moreover, it seems these decisions are slipping through the fingers of science's old-boy network into the hands of a different closed circle, that of a few lobbyists and powerful legislators. As a result, just a few institutions reap the rewards of these changes. Out of some 3,600 U.S. colleges and universities, only 170 received these direct federal appropriations in 1992, Brown says.

Early last week, Brown's committee released an interim report on academic earmarks and urged Congress to take steps to prevent the continued expansion of this practice. The committee based its report on figures compiled by the Congressional Research Service and on responses by 50 universities to letters sent by Brown about earmarked projects awarded those institutions.

Several of the institutions receiving large appropriations in fiscal 1992 (see chart) also rank among the top 25 all-time recipients of earmarks. They vary from small schools such as the 1,000-student Wheeling Jesuit College in West Virginia, awarded a total of $29 million, to large universities such as Iowa State University, the leading overall recipient with $91.6 million.

The 170 institutions do not always represent "outsiders" shorted by science's old-boy system, Brown notes. Half of the top 20 recipients of competitively awarded federal research money also have gotten earmarks.

Many of these institutions do so well because "they all have friends in high places," Brown writes.

Two kinds of legislation, and two sets of congressional committees, guide the allocation of funds. Periodically, Congress passes laws proposed by so-called authorizing committees that set budget ceilings for each federal agency. Each year, appropriations committees recommend specific funding amounts--up to that authorized--that Congress then accepts, rejects, or alters.

"The authorizers tend to think that the appropriators have overstepped their bounds," Widder says. The report notes that in FY 1992, 20 states got almost 79 percent of the academic earmarks and that these states have 12 senators and 34 representatives on appropriations committees.

Those individuals can slip unauthorized earmarks into any agency's budget --such as for new hospital buildings in legislation funding the Department of Energy -- at the last minute or bury them in reports that accompany a bill. As a result, little discussion about these allocations goes on, says Brown, who urges that site-specific earmarks be banned and that agencies be able to ignore earmarks without fear of political reprisal.
 Top 10 Recipients in FY 1992
 Schools Overall Rank(*) Dollars
 1. University of Alaska 2 $45,063,000
 2. Boston University 10 $29,000,000
 3. Michigan State University 13 $23,172,000
 4. University of Maryland 23 $22,770,000
 5. Wheeling Jesuit College 21 $21,000,000
 6. University of Rochester 7 $20,300,000
 7. University of West Virginia 5 $19,625,000
 8. University of Hawaii 6 $16,941,000
 9. Indiana University 17 $13,688,000
10. University of North Dakota 12 $13,681,000
(*) Rank based on total earmark funding from FY 1980-1992
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Title Annotation:direct appropriations for research from Congress rather than peer review
Author:Pennisi, Elizabeth
Publication:Science News
Date:Aug 21, 1993
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