Pork Barrel Science

Review of

Funding Science in America: Congress, Universities, and the Politics of the Academic Pork Barrel

Cambridge University Press: New York, 1999, 219 pp.

In 1972, three architects—Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour—published a book entitled Learning from Las Vegas. Its premise was simple if controversial: That however garish, ugly, and bizarre an outsider judged the architecture of Las Vegas, lots of people still chose to live, work, and play there. Why? What was attractive in what seemed to outsiders so repellent? It was an influential book.

Now we have James Savage’s book, which might just as easily have been called Learning from Earmarking. If earmarking public funds for specified research projects and facilities is for many “garish, ugly, and bizarre,” why is the practice so robust? Why, despite steadfast condemnations from major research institutions, university presidents, and leading politicians in both federal branches, is the practice alive and well? In a very extensive survey of earmarking, the Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported a record $797 million in earmarked funds for FY 1999, a 51 percent increase over 1998. The institutions receiving the FY 1999 earmarks include 45 of the 62 members of the Association of American Universities (AAU), the organization of major research universities. The AAU president told the Chronicle that he is “deeply concerned” by these earmarks, following the tradition of his predecessors who condemned earmarks while their members cashed the checks. To be fair, AAU presidents are not alone in finding themselves having to take both forks of the road. As Savage tells us, few are without sin, and many very public opponents of earmarks also accepted them. Quoting Kurt Vonnegut, so it goes.

But why? A simplistic answer would be Willie Sutton’s explanation for why he robbed banks: That’s where the money is. But it’s more nuanced than that. First, what is an “earmark”? Savage defines it as “a legislative provision that designates special consideration, treatment, funding, or rules for federal agencies or beneficiaries.” Proponents of earmarks often embellish this definition with rhetoric about the value of earmarks, rhetoric that Savage examines with care and depth. An asserted value is that earmarks can help states and institutions “bootstrap” themselves to a level where they can compete fairly for federal research funds that are available through the peer review system, which is still the dominant mode of federal research funding.

Since Savage dates academic earmarking back to 1977, when Tufts University sought and received the first earmark for research, we should be able to tell whether earmarks gave the recipients traction in competing for federal research funds. The short answer is not significantly. For example, when Savage examines changes in research rankings of states against earmarks they received between 1980 and 1996, he finds that “the total earmarked dollars a state obtained had a positive, though limited, relationship to improved rank. Among the top ten states receiving earmarks, four increased their rank, two declined, and three experienced no change.” Further, “the poorest states in terms of receiving R&D funds have received relatively few earmarks.” The exception is West Virginia, whose Senator, Robert Byrd, chaired the appropriations committee when the Democrats controlled the Senate. As the late Rep. George Brown, Jr., easily the most vigorous congressional opponent of earmarking, pointed out: “Earmarks are allocated not on the basis of need (as many would suggest), but in fact in direct proportion to the influence of a few senior and influential members of Congress.” But, then, as former Senator Russell Long of Louisiana remarked: “[I]f Louisiana is going to get something, I would rather depend on my colleagues on the Appropriations Committee than on one of those peers. I know a little something about universities . . . They have their own brand of politics, just as we have ours.” Senator Long went on to ask the full Senate: “When did we ever vote for peer review?”

The story of states and earmarks is much the same for universities. Savage looks at changes in research ranks for universities receiving $40 million or more in earmarks between 1980 and 1996, reasonably believing that this level of funding gave an institution substantial help in improving its ability to compete for peer-reviewed federal funds. Thirty-five institutions are included, with the top and bottom being the University of Hawaii ($159 million) and the University of South Carolina ($40 million). The results are mixed: “Of the thirty-five institutions identified, thirteen improved their rankings and ten experienced a decline.” The other schools were unranked when they received their first earmarks, and remained so. True, one has to go beyond numbers for a fuller story, and Savage does so, pointing out that the lasting impact of earmarks depended on how well an institution used the money to strengthen itself in areas where the federal dollars are, which is principally in programs funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

He cites the contrasting experiences of the Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) and Oregon State University (OSU), both of whom did very well in federal earmarks when Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee. OHSU used its earmarks to strengthen its capacities in health and related sciences, enabling it to compete far more effectively for NIH funds, whereas OSU used its earmarks for agricultural programs, for which competitive research funds are sparse. OHSU’s research ranking went up and that of OSU fell. More generally, Savage makes a “live by the sword, die by the sword” point about accepting earmarks when he notes that unlike peer review, earmarking has neither an institutionalized structure nor a routine process. As a key congressional supporter goes, so usually goes the earmark. For example, the Consortium for the International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), was created through earmarking with the considerable help of Michigan Rep. Bob Traxler, who chaired an appropriations subcommittee. CIESIN was in Michigan but Traxler retired, and CIESIN is now part of Columbia University in New York, at a very-much-reduced budget level.

Savage does give credence to motives for earmarks other than gaining equity in competing for federal funds, notably weaknesses in federal support for the construction and operation of research facilities. Federal support for facilities reached about a third of total facilities funding in 1968 and then declined in the 1970s and 1980s for various reasons, including a federal shift away from institutional research grants in favor of student aid and support of individual investigators; a shift favored by a substantial part of the academic research community and its associations. Certainly, the academic community made it plain in the context of severe pressures on the federal research budget that it did not support facilities at the expense of funds for research projects. The upshot was that by the 1980s, federal funding for facilities was extremely meager, so much so that the president of Columbia University could reasonably argue in 1983, when he sought earmarked money for a new chemistry building, that the earmark didn’t compete with peer-reviewed programs because “the federal government’s peer-reviewed facilities program had ceased to exist.”

Earmarking goes big time

Columbia got its money, which was taken out of Department of Energy funds intended for Yale University and the University of Washington. Columbia’ action was widely condemned (as was a similar action at the time by Catholic University), but it was only a trickle in what became a river. AAU members alone received $1.5 billion in earmarks between 1980 and 1996, 28 percent of the total. Much of that was acquired using the same tactics that Columbia and Catholic had used: Hire knowledgeable Washington insiders who know how the appropriations process really works. Savage notes that the firm of Schlossberg and Cassidy “perfected the art of academic earmarking, as they located the money for earmarking in the remotest and most obscure accounts in the federal budget. All the while, they have aggressively encouraged the expansion of earmarking by promising universities, some of them eager, others reluctant, for the scarce dollars needed for their most desired research projects and facilities.” The firm, transmuted to Cassidy and Associates in 1984, has become, notes Savage, “one of the largest, most influential, and most aggressive lobbying firms in Washington.” Fees are high, but there seemed to be few complaints. A university vice president comments that “it’s extraordinarily cost-effective, if you think about the amount the university has paid, and the amount the university has been paid.” For example, Columbia University paid $90,000 for a $1 million earmark, and the Rochester Institute of Technology paid $254,000 for $1.75 million. Schlossberg and Cassidy were unapologetic about their work, their position being, in Savage’s words, that “of an entrepreneurial, commission-based, fee-for-earmarking lobbying firm: when a university client approached them for help on a project that was politically feasible, and likely to be successfully funded, they usually accepted.”

During the 1980s and into the 1990s, several legislative efforts to control academic earmarking were launched but failed. As Savage comments, “the fragmented and uncoordinated opposition offered by individual members of Congress and a handful of authorizations committees has been insufficient to beat the resourceful and tenacious appropriations committees.” And although there have been occasional noises in the press about earmarks, they are, in Savage’s view, so much spitting into the wind. Indeed, Rep. Brown, speaking of the press coverage of his fight against earmarking said “I received no electoral benefit from it.” Efforts have been made to reduce the incentive to seek earmarks by appropriating funds specifically for those states that receive little federal research money. Most notably, NSF teamed up with several other agencies to create the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCOR) and is requesting $48 million for the program in FY2000. Although the goal of the program is commendable, I am aware of no evidence that it has discouraged earmarking.

Savage is now an associate professor at the University of Virginia, and his well-traveled resume includes work on earmarking and other issues with several congressional support agencies: the Congressional Research Service, the former Office of Technology Assessment, and the General Accounting Office. That worldly, inside-the-beltway experience combined with an equally impressive resume as a scholar results in a book that is fair, thorough, and well-researched. He offers sympathetic interpretations of actions where it might have been easy to simply hammer away, especially at the more greedy players. He does, however, break out into quite palpable scorn for the academic establishment, “as the leaders of many of its prominent institutions say one thing and do another.”

Will earmarking go on? Well, in August 1999, the president’s chief of staff, John Podesta, in offering the White House version, observed in prepared remarks about the House Republicans’ treatment of research that ” by digging deep into the pork-barrel, they earmarked nearly $1 billion in R&D projects, undermining the discipline of competition and peer review, and slashing funding for higher priority projects. Although in 1994 Republicans pledged to cut wasteful spending, it’s clear that they’re more interested in larding up the budget than pursuing cutting-edge research.” The chair of the House Science Committee, James Sensenbrenner, responded in kind: “I am encouraged by the Administration’s sudden interest in science funding. Over the past seven years, overall science budgets, which include both defense and civilian R&D, when indexed for inflation, have been flat or decreasing. Science needs a boost.”

So it goes.

Cite this Article

Metzger, Norman. “Pork Barrel Science.” Issues in Science and Technology 16, no. 1 (Fall 1999).

Vol. XVI, No. 1, Fall 1999