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Where's the pork?

The academic pork barrel just gets bigger and bigger. Since 1980, at least $2.5 billion in federal research spending has been "earmarked" for specially designated academic science projects that were not subjected to the peer or merit review process. In 1992, at least $708 million in federal funds was earmarked for academic research and facilities--a 43 percent increase over 1991.

Most of the earmarked dollars go to only a few institutions, and virtually no oversight is exercised over how this money is spent. In September 1992, the Congressional Research Service reported that there is little evidence that the institutions that receive earmarked funds have improved their research capabilities.

Many academics bemoan the politicization of research that is evident in federal policies such as the Bush administration ban on most fetal tissue research or restrictions on projects funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. The peer review process, of course, is the most important barrier to such political intervention: It is the most effective method yet devised for allocating scarce research dollars to produce the best science. Yet peer review is sidestepped by an increasing number of universities and colleges, which hire lobbyists to encourage members of Congress to violate the principle of merit review in the distribution of research funds. In addition to politicizing research, earmarking contributes to cynical, self-serving behavior within the academy.

Opponents of earmarking are hampered by the fact that there is no common understanding of just what an "earmark" is. Proponents of earmarking have conveniently--and often hypocritically--defined earmarking to suit their own interests. A given research project may be denounced as a pork-barreled goodie or defended as peer-reviewed science. Until the scientific community can agree on a stringent definition of earmarking, the problem cannot be solved.

The six variant definitions listed below demonstrate how different interpretations of the problem shape the debate over pork-barrel science.

Earmarking is the selection of research facilities or projects for funding by any manner other than external peer or merit review. This is the most inclusive definition of earmarking. It places the greatest emphasis on merit, as judged by a panel of independent experts. The criteria employed by the panels may vary, and could include considerations such as geographic equity and preferences for young and minority researchers as well as scientific merit. But the critical element is that the allocation decision be made by independent experts. All other forms of selection, particularly the authorization or appropriation of funds by either the executive branch or the Congress, are regarded as earmarking.

The unique strength of this definition is that it is unambiguous. Its use would require the scientific community to press for the extension of the peer review process to all federal programs and agencies that allocate research funds. Pork-barrel opponents such as former National Science Foundation director Erich Bloch advocate the use of this definition. All of the following deviations from this strict standard create problems.

An earmark is a research project or facility directly funded by the Congress. This more limited definition of earmarking is the one most commonly recognized within the scientific community and by the higher-education associations. Both direct congressional authorizations and appropriations for projects are categorized as earmarks. This definition, however, excludes projects proposed by an executive-branch agency, even if that agency did not employ a peer review panel.

The Association of American Universities (AAU) employed such a definition in its 1989 resolution on facilities funding, which stated that, "by 'earmarking' we mean appropriations that designate funding for research . . . without prior designation from the agency concerned or from a competitive process." Although the resolution mentioned appropriations and neglected to include authorizations, its intent was to identify Congress as the source of earmarking. This focus on Congress is also evident in the Office of Technology Assessment's definition, which describes an earmark as a "project, facility, instrument, or other academic or research-related expense that is directly funded by Congress, which has not been subjected to peer review and will not be competitively awarded."

The weakness of this definition is that it ignores the potential for politics in the selection of projects within the executive branch. Not surprisingly, some members of Congress consider this definition of earmarking to be an insult to the Congress. During last year's debate over President Bush's rescission list of earmarks, for instance, Representative Neal Smith (D-Iowa), chairman of the Commerce appropriations subcommittee, argued that the President should have included executive-branch projects as well.

Earmarks are unauthorized appropriations initiated by Congress. Some members of Congress define an earmark as an appropriation that was not first approved by a congressional authorizing committee. If a project is authorized and later receives an appropriation, then there is no earmark. Even such a staunch opponent of earmarking as Representative William Natcher (D-Ky.), the new chair of the House Appropriations Committee, holds this view. Natcher assiduously fights unauthorized projects, but he will occasionally appropriate funds for authorized ones.

This definition reflects the view of some members that the legislative process should work as it is intended to, so that authorizations precede appropriations. Earmarking is considered a problem more because it violates this process than because it violates scientific norms. Tensions between authorizing and appropriating committees are often played out in the debate over earmarks. For example, Representative George Brown (D-Calif.), who is co-chairman of the Higher Education Facilities Colloquium and chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, acknowledges that his opposition to earmarking is largely due to concern that appropriators are receiving all the benefits of distributing earmarks. Who should allocate such funds, Brown asks rhetorically--"a lobbying firm in collusion with a powerful |appropriations~ member's staff, or authorizing committees of the House?"

Direct appropriations for projects in the Department of Agriculture appropriations bill are not earmarks. Some higher-education associations, including AAU and the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges, have argued that regardless of their origins, items in the agriculture appropriations bill are not at issue in the debate over earmarking. Agricultural research is said to have a distinctive "culture" to which earmarking standards such as those upheld by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health do not apply. Thus, Cornell University, noted for its decision to refuse a $5-million earmark for a super-computer, accepts earmarked appropriations for agriculture research projects.

The issue of whether agriculture projects should be counted as earmarks has been raised by Chancellor Joe Wyatt of Vanderbilt University, who recently asked his fellow university presidents, "Is AAU's stated position in opposition to earmarks undercut by tolerance for agriculture earmarks?" Former AAU President Robert Rosenzweig has acknowledged that AAU may have made a mistake in limiting its condemnation of direct appropriations in the agriculture bill.

A definition of earmarking that excludes any particular appropriations bill or federal agency, such as the Department of Agriculture, undermines the opposition to earmarking for several reasons. First, such a position is clearly insulting to members of Congress who sit on appropriations subcommittees other than agriculture. These members are unlikely to join the fight against earmarking when they are informed that a technology center, trade center, biology center, or polymers institute earmarked in their bill undermines science and wastes federal funds, but if these same projects are funded by the agriculture appropriations subcommittee they are tolerated by the higher-education community. Such projects have indeed been earmarked in the agriculture appropriations bill.

Second, such a position gives earmarkers a green light to shift their projects to the agriculture bill and thus escape the criticism generally reserved for the other subcommittees' earmarks. For example, when some universities found it impossible to obtain earmarked biomedical facilities from the appropriations subcommittee responsible for the Department of Health and Human Services, they turned successfully to the Energy and Water and the Agriculture subcommittees.

Third, excluding agriculture appropriations from the debate over earmarking is likely to undercut efforts to increase the number of competitively funded research programs in the bill. Condoning one form of earmarking on the basis of a reference to history or "culture" only encourages earmarking of all kinds.

Subcontracted projects are not earmarks. Sometimes portions of earmarked research contracts and grants are subcontracted out to researchers at other universities. The agriculture appropriations bill, for instance, often awards funds for special projects, which are then subcontracted on the basis of a modified peer review process. In one of many such cases, Texas A&M University acts as the principal investigator for a consortium of Southwestern universities conducting research on mosquitoes. The consortium establishes a peer review panel, which sometimes consists of faculty from only those particular universities, to allocate the funds within the group. Thus, although the initial award was earmarked, the subcontracting faculty and institutions claim that their project underwent peer review.

The issue of subcontracting is tied to the rise of earmarking consortia. These consortia allow a number of universities to share the efforts and benefits of obtaining earmarked funds. Examples of these groups include the 18-university Midwest Plant Biotechnology Consortium; the five-university Midwest Superconductivity Consortium; and the four-university National Institute for Global and Environmental Change. Several of these groups include what are typically regarded as elite universities that generally oppose earmarking, such as Harvard University, the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, Washington University, MIT, and the Davis and Santa Barbara campuses of the University of California. Because they accept only subcontracted funds allocated on the basis of merit, these institutions consider themselves to have avoided earmarking.

Congressionally authorized funds designated for regional consortia are not earmarks, as long as they do not come from the NIH and NSF budgets. The Midwestern Universities Alliance, a consortium of universities lobbying for earmarked funds, argues that it is ethical to accept funds authorized by Congress or budgeted by the administration for regional projects as long as they do not come from the NIH or NSF appropriations bills, and as long as certain other criteria are met: The grants must be allocated to regional universities on a competitive basis; more than one university must be involved; and the project must suit the unique needs or resources of the region. This definition simply attempts to mask what is essentially an earmark.

The period of steady growth in federal research spending is ending. With increased competition for funds, pressure for earmarking will certainly increase. Each exception to the strict definition of earmarking weakens the case of those who oppose the practice and creates conflicts among potential allies. Are the long-term interests of the scientific community best served by AAU, for example, taking the side of the executive branch versus that of Congress, the side of authorizers versus that of appropriators, and condoning earmarkers on the agriculture appropriations subcommittee? Only the clearest and most inclusive definition of earmarking truly supports the goal of achieving the highest-caliber science, not only within the academy but throughout the federal government. This definition should be adopted by organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and AAU to help them put a lid on the academic pork barrel.

James D. Savage is assistant professor and associate chairman, Department of Government, University of Virginia at Charlottesville.
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Title Annotation:Perspectives; what constitutes an earmarked federal fund for research
Author:Savage, James D.
Publication:Issues in Science and Technology
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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