Nosing for cash in Congress's trough

March 2, 2001

Political lobbying for funds, or pork barrelling, is not helping research in the United States, says James Savage.

Academic pork barrelling is all the rage in American higher education these days. In fact, in the year 2000 more than $1.1 billion in federal research funds were pork barrelled for nearly 200 universities and colleges. What is academic pork barrelling? Many universities are bypassing the established peer-review panels that evaluate applications for federal funding in favour of direct political intervention. They do so by soliciting members of Congress, often with the aid of hired lobbyists, to "earmark" one of the government's appropriation bills that fund its research agencies. The agency is simply ordered to hand the designated sum over.

Congress has earmarked more than $6.5 billion in this way, half of this in the past five years. Last year it added up to almost 10 per cent of federal funding for university research.

Opponents denounce earmarking as pork barrelling, a derisive term used to describe the patronage practices of members of Congress who deliver roads, bridges, military contracts and other benefits to their constituents, regardless of their cost or value. Now Congress has extended the practice to the funding of university research.

In response, a number of prestigious societies, including the combined National Academies of Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Association of American Universities, have all censured pork barrelling. For them, it diverts funding from high-quality research projects and, more important, it undermines the peer-review system that rewards merit and insulates academic research from political intervention and influence.

In fact, in the 1940s, academics serving in the government promoted peer review specifically to prevent this happening. Vannevar Bush, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, proposed that funds be allocated through competitively awarded, individual project grants. To promote the best science, Bush firmly rejected distributing research dollars by block grant, rather than through meritorious competition. To insulate university research from direct government control and political influence, he recommended that distinguished academic scientists make those decisions, rather than relying solely on agency officials.

Although Bush's plan failed to become law, peer or merit review nevertheless quickly spread throughout the government's science agencies. In this process, university scientists seeking federal funds submit grant proposals to the appropriate institution. These are then evaluated by panels of senior academic researchers on the basis of their scientific merit. Peer review's combination of quality control and academic independence have contributed enormously to the abundant scientific and technological achievements emanating from American research universities.

Nevertheless, many ambitious institutions find peer review to be inherently biased. Federal research funding is concentrated in fewer than 100 research universities, with some 50 receiving more than half the annual grant awarded to the sector. Critics denounce peer review as an old-boy network that rewards the same universities time and again.

Many less prestigious universities claim that earmarking is necessary if they are to obtain the federal support needed to strengthen their research capabilities.

The problem with earmarking, however, is that it too is biased. If scientific merit is unequally distributed, so too is political influence. Not surprisingly, those universities represented by powerful members of Congress receive most of the earmarked dollars. As shown in the table below, ten universities with powerful mentors have received a quarter of all such funding over the years -$1.7 billion -while the top 35 obtained more than half -$3.4 billion. Despite this infusion of money, analysis has shown that only eight improved their research competitiveness, while 11 actually registered a decline.

The American experience of earmarking offers a valuable lesson for the international science community. The scientific payoff from pork-barrel funding is minimal, at best. It encourages political intervention in the conduct of academic science and wastes public resources. If academic science is to prosper, it must be protected not only from domineering bureaucrats and interfering politicians, but also from the self-serving actions of academics themselves.

James Savage is professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia and author of Funding Science in America: Congress, Universities and the Politics of the Academic Pork Barrel.

America's top ten academic pork barrellers

1. University of Hawaii $290.4m

2. University of Alaska $198.7m

3. Georgetown University $179.3m

4. West Virginia $172.2m

5. University of Pittsburgh $162.2m

6. Iowa State University $162m

7. Louisiana State $155.1m

8. Loma Linda University $150.6m

9. Oregon Health Science $125.5m

10. Pennsylvania State $97.8m

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