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

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

by James D. Savage

Cambridge University Press * 1999 * 256 pages * $49.95

Taxpayer funding of science in America is pretty meager compared to total federal spending. But legislators and interest groups intent on grabbing tax dollars for themselves don't care whether the budget item is great or small. In recent years, federal funding for scientific research has become a prime target of the wastrels, and this pottage has since been giving off the distinct aroma of sizzling "pork."

Pork-barrel science is the subject of James D. Savage's excellent study of an arcane but important aspect of American academic science. He argues that the trend toward pork both corrupts the merit system for research funding and undermines the rational framework we have employed for the delivery of federal funds to those who do science.

Federal science funding used to be driven by the model of peer review. Congress would appropriate money for general fields of research, but decisions on the precise allocation of those dollars would depend on the evaluations of scientists called on by various agencies. That tax-funded system isn't perfect, but Savage says it tends to steer funds toward the research proposals that seem to have the greatest likelihood of success. Over the last two decades, however, politicians have been avoiding the peer review process more and more. Instead, much of the federal support for scientific research is now done through "earmarking," which is to say that money goes to institutions for purposes that may have only a tenuous relationship to science. Earmarking, as Savage puts it, is a "collective action problem" that challenges the "dominant policy regime" of peer/merit review.

Savage brings a wealth of insight from his years near the sausage grinder of science policymaking, having served as a consultant to the Congressional Research Service and to the Office of Technology Assessment. One of the key reasons for the move away from peer/merit review, he observes, was that its results were decidedly unegalitarian. The "old regime" of science funding sent the vast majority of the money to a small set of universities where most of the top scientists worked. In other words, it became obvious to many that a few states and universities were getting most of the resources under peer/merit review, so direct political action to "balance" the ledger was undertaken. Few university officials tried to hold out for meritocracy. …