Many US institutions battle for cash through a controversial Congressional budgeting practice that sidesteps merit-based methods of funding research. Jon Marcus reports
The measure passed by the US Congress in 2005 to pay for highway repairs and construction seemed routine, if extravagant. It set aside a pool of nearly $300 billion over five years to maintain the nation's vast network of roads, tunnels and bridges.
Then people started reading the fine print.
Buried in the massive spending bill were more than 6,300 special allocations - known as "earmarks" - placed by congressmen and women to benefit their own districts. And among those was $348 million for research and facilities at 42 US universities, all to be given to institutions without peer review or competitive process.
The 2005 Transport Bill provoked a controversy that has resulted in calls to reform the means by which congressmen can more or less clandestinely funnel money to pet projects. It also has exposed the degree to which government spending on higher education research has partially shifted from a rational process to a political one in which academics with little expertise in a particular area of study - rather than the most qualified institutions - are lavished with money.
Earmarks benefit all kinds of organisations: the Transport Bill most famously included a provision by a congressman from Alaska to build a $220 million bridge to a town of 50 people. But the first thing to recognise, said Ronald Utt, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, was that universities and the lobbyists who work for them "basically invented the earmark business".
"Earmarks were originally focused almost entirely on universities," said Dr Utt. "Prior to the earmarking, almost all the federal funding of universities was done on a competitive basis. Within the National Institutes of Health, they would look to fund these six studies on non-Hodgkin lymphoma or something and say, 'Here are the specifications. Send us a proposal and the best one gets it.' The problem was that these contracts went to better universities."
This meant that smaller or less accomplished schools, even ones in congressional districts with powerful representatives in Washington, were frozen out.
"With earmarks, you circumvent the more competitive, merit-based system for research," Dr Utt said. "We now designate people to do this research, whether they're qualified or not. They don't have to compete with anybody."
That does not mean they do not compete with each other. Now, rather than simply vying on the basis of merit for a research grant, universities spend hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying Congress for funding.
Several huge lobbying firms specialise in lobbying on universities' behalf. One of the biggest, Cassidy and Associates, says: "Our firm works with education clients to secure funding for major construction and infrastructure development, technological upgrades and advancements including everything from the establishment of remote classrooms to the purchase of new media and telecommunications equipment."
It also helps them to secure research funding. Its clients include American University, Arizona State University, Boston University, Columbia University, Stanford University and the University of Southern California.
It was not always this way. Traditionally, universities competed for funding based on merit through Government agencies such as Nasa, the National Institutes of Health, or the National Science Foundation. And the US Government has spent large sums on research. Over the past 50 years, federal research and development funding has kept pace with the growth of the US economy, reaching 2 per cent of gross domestic product at the peak of the space programme. Today, more than half of the basic research in the US is done at universities - about $42 billion a year in federal money.
It's a big pie. But much of it was being gobbled up by large, prestigious research institutions on the East and West coasts. Fed up, other universities started to nudge their congressmen to put a little something aside for them.
"Invariably the universities (receiving earmarked funds) are in states represented by the leadership of the House and Senate or the people who control appropriations," Dr Utt said. "Little of this has anything to do with accountability. There's not even a requirement that a report be submitted."
Many in higher education are uneasy about the secretive and controversial earmarks, of which they are among the principal beneficiaries. Spokespeople for one university association after another deflected questions about the issue. "Nobody wants to talk about earmarks," the spokesperson for one national organisation said.
The Association of American Universities, representing major research institutions, formally objects to earmarks as a means of funding research, encouraging members to forgo them. But the position is not compulsory.
"Some of our universities accept earmarks and some don't," said Barry Toiv, spokesman for the association. "Some pursue earmarks, some don't. Some will accept them even if they haven't been pursued. Some won't."
John Casteen III, president of the University of Virginia, which belongs to the AAU, says the leaders of all but about ten of the AAU's 62 member institutions have sought earmarked money.
"Even in the sector of higher education that has been most determined to discourage the mechanism, the evidence is that the vast majority of member institutions have, in fact, participated in the system," Dr Casteen said.
The earmark process evolved because the peer-review system was "biased in favour of established institutions", he said. "And those institutions are, by and large, members of an old-boy network, so those institutions have a kind of inside track with regard to the allocation of funds through the peer-review process."
Dr Casteen added: "The argument that perhaps one hears most often (is) everyone else is already seeking earmarked funds and institutional presidents or research leaders who do not do so are, in effect, abdicating responsibility for their institutions, and indeed, to science itself."
But now that earmarks have become routine, even some universities that have criticised them are in the awkward position of being forced to defend them. According to the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, research universities alone face the collective loss of as much as $1.5 billion if proposed reforms are put into place.
Those proposed reforms have come in response to widespread public scorn that greeted the exposure of the "bridge to nowhere" and other earmarks. Tom Coburn, a Republican senator who opposes earmarks, has demanded information about lobbying activities from some 100 universities and has called for restricting universities from using federal funds to lobby the federal Government, something universities say they are already prohibited from doing.
John McCain, the senator and presidential candidate, introduced the Pork Barrel Reduction Act in February 2006, which would let senators block an earmark with a majority vote, require that earmarks be disclosed publicly and identify the congressman who placed a particular earmark in a bill, among other things. Democrats who took control of Congress this year also proposed a moratorium on earmarks until reforms were passed.
Meanwhile, US universities are cashing their cheques and keeping their heads down.
Dr Utt said they did not seem reluctant to accept money from earmarks.
"Embarrassed? I doubt it. Nobody's embarrassed any more by this system."
EARMARKED FOR LARGESSE
The US Government has allocated $137 billion this year for research and development. States, foundations and private industries will spend a further $175 billion on R&D.
Universities perform more than half of basic research in America and administer several federal research centres on the Government's behalf. In addition, universities account for about 17 per cent of applied research.
Traditionally, universities apply for research grants for specific purposes, advertised in a competitive process by government agencies including Nasa and the National Institutes of Health. The NIH and the Department of Defence together dole out three quarters of the Government's research funding. The National Science Foundation, Nasa and the Department of Energy account for a further 19 per cent.
Some agencies, including the NIH, adhere to a strict, merit-based, competitive grants process. Applications for funding are evaluated by peer-review groups composed of scientists.
Then advisory councils made up of policy-makers and public appointees choose the grantees.
But increasingly, federal research money to universities is awarded through earmarks, or allocations by congressmen.
In 2005, the last year for which the figures are available, there were 13,997 earmarks, more than ten times as many as a decade earlier.
Proponents of earmarks say they make it possible for less prestigious universities to compete for funding with better-established research universities, and that members of Congress are the best qualified to determine local needs.
Critics complain that they direct important research spending to universities that are not capable of doing the research and that there is no accountability.