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Trim the pork.

James Savage's article "Where's the Pork?" (Issues, Spring 1993) is a timely commentary on the issue of academic pork barrel. His analysis of the various definitions of earmarking clearly and concisely explains the insidiousness of academic pork.

The science community has a history of being unable to set research priorities, especially when each discipline comes before Congress pleading extreme need on behalf of its constituency. To get science organizations to agree on a definition of earmarks will take time and a great deal of persuasion. In the meantime, the use of several of the other definitions, impure though they may be, are at least a step in the right direction of fighting earmarking. I share Professor Savage's concern about the speciousness of some of the definitions set forth in his article and, along with him, take especially strong exception to the American Association of Universities' and the National Association of Land Grant Colleges' argument that pork-barrel items in the agriculture appropriations bill do not count as earmarked projects. After all, an agriculture researcher, more than anyone, should be able to identify pork when he sees it!

Science pork barrel is most often found in appropriations bills, not authorizations. The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee has a good record of requiring the use of the peer review process to award grants and contracts. The appropriations committees of both houses, however, have a very different philosophy and have participated wholeheartedly in the perversion of the peer review process. As a consequence, there is growing agreement with a proposal that I made two years ago: The appropriations committees should be abolished, and the authority to appropriate funds should be given to the authorizing committees. Although this is not the complete solution to pork-barreling, it would serve to diffuse the power of the purse strings throughout the entire membership, rather than concentrating it in the hands of a relative few.

Pork-barrel politics is much more than a benign effort by lawmakers to obtain federal funds for their congressional districts. The process of allocating special "demonstration projects" does not happen in a vacuum. The requesting and granting of special requests for funding, be it for $500,000 or $50 million, is carefully documented by the appropriators. And those who have made such requests and received funding are often reminded of their benefactors' largess at the time of crucial votes. Pork-barreling is a corruption of the political process.

There is some good news to report. The trend toward more and more earmarks may be turning ever so slightly. The Clinton stimulus package failed in the Senate in part because Republican senators successfully pointed out to the public the lists and lists of earmarked projects from swimming pools, golf courses, and gymnasiums to parking garages, cemeteries, theaters, and fish atlases. The Porkbusters Coalition, a bipartisan group of 72 members of Congress, is committed to identifying and stopping pork barrel spending in appropriations bills. Finally, Rep. George Brown (D-Calif.), chairman of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee, has pledged to publicly air the debate over academic pork-barreling in a series of hearings this spring and summer. Those of us who have spent the past 15 years fighting the increase in academic pork-barreling applaud these efforts.

REP. ROBERT S. WALKER Republican of Pennsylvania (Walker is the ranking minority member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.)

James Savage is a valuable resource. Not only has he made it his job to inform us each year of the score in the game of academic pork, but he has tried to elucidate the forces inside and outside the Congress that have led to the game's great popularity. In "Where's the Pork," Savage tries his hand at a prescription, and it consists essentially of a recommendation that the scorekeeping rules be clarified. His proposal is that the definition of pork be understood by everyone to include any project that is not first approved by a peer review process that includes only nongovernment peers.

For reasons that I will discuss shortly, I do not believe that a better definition will do much to solve the problem. I am, however, in favor of a better definition. There is ambiguity about what constitutes an earmark, and some people have undoubtedly used the resulting confusion to fly their projects under false colors. I am acutely conscious of that problem since, as Savage points out, I was the perpetrator of the quaint notion that it doesn't count if it turns up in the Department of Agriculture appropriation. I seem to recall that I had some reason for taking that position, but I have forgotten what it was. In any case, I recanted long ago, and I welcome the chance to apologize publicly.

Savage's definition has the twin advantages of clarity and purity. Its main defect lies, in fact, in its excessive purity. Some excellent research programs have been administered by the Department of Defense using internal reviewers. The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) use external reviewers with good results. On the whole, I prefer the latter, but what really matters is that the judgments be made by persons who have the professional competence to make them.

As useful as a clearer and more widely accepted definition would be, I can't believe that it strikes at the heart of the problem, which really does reside in the Congress. That is not to say that executive agencies are pure and that politics never enters into their decisions. From time to time, even actions of NIH and NSF have raised questions about their motives. And it may be that the new administration, with its commitment to industrial policy, may come to see universities as instruments of economic development, and in the process become more like the Congress. But the fact is that the billion or so dollars a year that the Congress earmarks for science is the problem. It became a problem when the number grew so large, and it will remain a problem until the number shrinks. Moreover, it is a problem that resides primarily in the appropriating committees. That is not because the authorizers are inherently more principled but because they do not have the power to do what the appropriators do.

The forces that are pressing the Congress, and to which many universities are responding, have to do with economics and politics and the way in which the two are intertwined in a representative political system. Economic goods for the constituency become political goods for the representative, and whatever the truth of the belief, science is now believed to be a hot source of economic goods.

Understanding that does not make a solution any easier to craft, but it does throw a rather dark light on notions that nibbling around the edges will accomplish very much. A large, well-run facilities program might help, but there is no guarantee that it would, and in any case that is not going to happen. The failure of universities to deliver the promised economic benefits might also dampen enthusiasm for earmarking university projects. It will be a long time before that evidence is in, and the cost of failure could well beggar any gain from the diminution of earmarking.

It is painful for me to say this, having spent 10 years opposing what still seems to me a practice that will weaken American science, but I have concluded that there is no reform, no matter how cleverly crafted, that will prevent members of Congress from doing what they believe to be in the best interests of their constituencies and their political careers. Nor do I think that appeals to reason or to the larger public good will dissuade university officials from putting the immediate benefit to their institution at the top of their list of priorities, if they are so disposed. I honor those who have resisted both the temptations and the pressures; I hope that they will continue to do so and that they will be joined by many others. But I reluctantly conclude that hope is what we are left with.

ROBERT ROSENZWEIG Former President Association of American Universities Washington, D.C.

In "Where's the Pork?" James Savage urges that earmarking be defined as the "selection of research facilities or projects for funding by any manner other than external peer or merit review." He goes on to suggest that Harvard compromised this standard in accepting a subcontract to join the National Institute for Global and Environmental Change (NIGEC).

At no stage was Harvard part of a consortium established "to allocate funds within the group." We made it clear that we would become a participating center of the national institute only if our proposal was selected by external peer reviewers in an open competition with other universities. At our insistence, such a competition was held. We were eventually informed that our proposal (in collaboration with researchers from Carnegie Mellon, Clark, SUNY-Albany, the University of New Hampshire, and the Woods Hole Ecosystems Center) had been chosen over others.

Under rules subsequently developed by NIGEC and the Department of Energy (DOE), with Harvard's participation, each NIGEC regional center now hosts an open meeting at which the emphasized areas of collaboration are developed by regional universities, solicits proposals from institutions throughout its region, arranges for their review by external peers, and submits a bundle of reviewed proposals for peer review by a National Technical Advisory Committee and DOE. Less than half of the funds may support research by a university that serves as the regional center. Thus, Savage's characterization does not apply to any NIGEC regional center now.

Projects submitted through the northeast center have received international awards and national recognition and, because the proposals have been so strong, DOE has sought and received supplemental funding for several that meet the objectives of other DOE peer-reviewed programs by submitting proposals to these programs.

Agreeing with the thrust of much of Savage's argument, let me nevertheless insist that in becoming the Northeast Center of NIGEC, Harvard satisfied all reasonable principles and standards.

PAUL C. MARTIN Dean Division of Applied Sciences Harvard University

James Savage replies:

Paul C. Martin's letter accurately clarifies the facts about Harvard's participation in NIGEC, but we disagree on their significance. I believe that my definition of earmarking applies in this case. The funding for all regional centers ultimately depends on the continued earmarking of the total institute budget; not all of the centers were selected by merit review; and the very organization of the institute into regional centers reflects a political rather than a scientific decision. Although I applaud Harvard's efforts at incorporating some form of merit review into the administration of the institute, I think that accepting a merit-reviewed subcontract from an earmarked institute is a mistake because it helps to legitimize the earmark.
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Title Annotation:response to James Savage, Issues, Spr 1993
Author:Walker, Robert S.; Rosenzweig, Robert; Martin, Paul C.
Publication:Issues in Science and Technology
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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