'Pork-barrel' cash on the rise in US

April 3, 2008

Public criticism of non-competitive research grants has not stemmed their growth. John Gill reports

A controversial funding system responsible for funnelling $1.6 billion (£800 million) to academic research without peer review is thriving in the US.

The number of so-called pork-barrel projects funded by non-competitive grants known as earmarks has risen to record levels, despite lawmakers' vows to cut back.

Earmarks are distributed by members of Congress, often to their own constituents, without peer review.

Critics say the system is weakening research by restricting competition for funding, with knock-on effects for the US economy.

An analysis by The Chronicle of Higher Education, following new legislation forcing Congress to publish details of earmarks, reveals that 2,300 projects at 920 institutions received such grants last year, a 25 per cent increase on five years ago.

The total sums allocated to projects receiving patronage through earmarks rose to $2.25 billion, a slight increase on 2003, and a massive step up from the $528 million allocated a decade ago.

While some was for capital spending, about two thirds - or $1.6 billion - went to scientific research, equal to about 5 per cent of all government funding for academic research in the US. The analysis also found that this discretionary funding was often focused in politically sensitive areas of research.

It suggests that the war in Iraq, for example, led to an increase in earmarks for medical research into spinal injuries, of the sort often sustained by soldiers, while funding for biofuel research coincided with rising oil prices.

Although the total sum distributed was slightly higher than in 2003, the average earmark fell from $497,000 to $462,000 as the total number of grants increased.

Of more concern to critics, however, is the fact that rapid growth in spending on peer-reviewed grants between 1998 and 2003 has dropped off in the past five years.

Last year, in response to universities' pleas, Congress passed the America Competes Act, promising to double spending on the National Science Foundation and other physical sciences programmes over seven years.

However, much of the proposed increase for 2008, which amounted to $600 million - equal to just over a quarter of total spending on earmarks - was cut from the final spending bill.

Despite concerns about the impact of earmarks, there is evidence to suggest that universities may be compounding the situation by chasing the grants in private, even as they claim to disapprove of them.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that at meetings of the Association of American Universities, presidents of research institutions regularly complain that earmarks are squeezing out peer-reviewed awards. But it quoted one president, speaking anonymously, as saying that "they then go home and call up their congressman to ask for an earmark".

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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