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Pork: The Other Research

AIBS Washington Watch, July 2004

Robert E. Gropp

Candidates for high political office commonly pledge to curb federal spending by "putting an end to pork-barrel projects." Some, like US Senator John McCain (R-AZ), have built a national following by opposing earmarking--otherwise known as pork-barrel spending. Yet one person's pork is another person's critical investment in the infrastructure and vitality of the nation. In this questionable light, one might suppose that Congress had demonstrated a remarkable commitment to the vitality of academe throughout most of the past decade. As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, earmarked largesse rose from $296 million in fiscal year 1996 to more than $2 billion in fiscal year 2003.

This trend toward greater earmarking of funds for biological research concerns some science policy analysts, who believe that, over time, this funding pattern may have less than beneficial effects on the basic research enterprise. In 2001, Science magazine reported that "up to 10% of the Environmental Protection Agency's $550 million R&D budget has been consumed by pork in recent years." Likewise, NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) had been forced to trim competitive life science grants in its research and development programs. At least partially in response to these administrative challenges, in 2001 budget officials in the White House Office of Management and Budget sought a commitment from leaders of the academic and science policy communities to oppose earmarking. Given the continued growth in earmarking since 2001, such a pledge has apparently proved elusive.

Some experts believe that tight state and institutional budgets and inadequate indirect cost recovery drive the pursuit of earmarked funds. Others posit that directed federal funding reduces the imbalance between the haves and the have-nots. These justifications do not impress champions of competitive research grant programs, however, who worry that earmarked projects are draining vital resources from basic research programs. Karl Glasener, director of science policy for the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and the Soil Science Society of America, contends that "earmarks are sucking the life blood out of competitive research programs like [the US Department of Agriculture's] National Research Initiative." As the amount of earmarked funds grows, less money is left for basic agricultural research.

Glasener postulates that researchers and institutions pursue earmarked funds for lack of an alternative--they are "fed up with flat funding for competitive research." Out of necessity, then, in order to survive, researchers and deans have begun to pressure their congressional delegations to secure special research grants. And after members of Congress have fought to secure a few earmarked grants for an institution, Glasener warns, they are less apt to see the benefit of competitive grant programs.

Managers of agency research grant programs quietly express hope that academe and members of Congress will begin to demonstrate restraint when it comes to earmarked projects, before their programs are tasked with building tennis courts. In the meantime, they worry about their capacity to continue to fund basic research, while influential members of Congress and presidential candidates say they want to trim federal spending in order to reduce a record-breaking national deficit and to pay for homeland and international security initiatives. The National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the departments of education and the interior are already on notice that President Bush, if reelected, will cut their funds in the fiscal year 2006 budgt. Therefore, agencies interested in sustaining current funding for specific priority programs will have to make deeper cuts in other areas.

Most of those in the university community remain silent about earmarking, perhaps signaling a growing acceptance of this funding stream. Some, such as Mark Bain, director of the Center for the Environment at Cornell University, encourage the science and policy communities to carefully consider the ramifications of earmarking. Bain, who participated in earmarked research at other institutions, notes that "most of the[se] efforts were moderately productive at best and hard to manage because of long periods of funding uncertainty, staff instability, and shifting priorities." Bain admits that good science was just one part of the mix, adding that he "always felt the pressure to deliver benefits expected by those who provided the opportunity."

It remains to be seen whether congressional support for academic earmarks will continue. Given recent trends and Congress's difficulty in reaching agreement on spending bills, one would expect to see more earmarking. Meanwhile, Glasener hopes that the research community will launch a vigorous defense of competitive research grant programs.

Robert E. Gropp (email: ) is AIBS's senior public policy representative.

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