Where's the Pork?

By Savage, James D. | Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

Where's the Pork?


Savage, James D., Issues in Science and Technology


The academic pork barrel just gets bigger and bigger. Since 1980, at least $2.5 billion in federal research spending has been "earmarked" for specially designated academic science projects that were not subjected to the peer or merit review process. In 1992, at least $708 million in federal funds was earmarked for academic research and facilities--a 43 percent increase over 1991.

Most of the earmarked dollars go to only a few institutions, and virtually no oversight is exercised over how this money is spent. In September 1992, the Congressional Research Service reported that there is little evidence that the institutions that receive earmarked funds have improved their research capabilities.

Many academics bemoan the politicization of research that is evident in federal policies such as the Bush administration ban on most fetal tissue research or restrictions on projects funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. The peer review process, of course, is the most important barrier to such political intervention: It is the most effective method yet devised for allocating scarce research dollars to produce the best science. Yet peer review is sidestepped by an increasing number of universities and colleges, which hire lobbyists to encourage members of Congress to violate the principle of merit review in the distribution of research funds. In addition to politicizing research, earmarking contributes to cynical, self-serving behavior within the academy.

Opponents of earmarking are hampered by the fact that there is no common understanding of just what an "earmark" is. Proponents of earmarking have conveniently--and often hypocritically--defined earmarking to suit their own interests. A given research project may be denounced as a pork-barreled goodie or defended as peer-reviewed science. Until the scientific community can agree on a stringent definition of earmarking, the problem cannot be solved.

The six variant definitions listed below demonstrate how different interpretations of the problem shape the debate over pork-barrel science.

Earmarking is the selection of research facilities or projects for funding by any manner other than external peer or merit review. This is the most inclusive definition of earmarking. It places the greatest emphasis on merit, as judged by a panel of independent experts. The criteria employed by the panels may vary, and could include considerations such as geographic equity and preferences for young and minority researchers as well as scientific merit. But the critical element is that the allocation decision be made by independent experts. All other forms of selection, particularly the authorization or appropriation of funds by either the executive branch or the Congress, are regarded as earmarking.

The unique strength of this definition is that it is unambiguous. Its use would require the scientific community to press for the extension of the peer review process to all federal programs and agencies that allocate research funds. Pork-barrel opponents such as former National Science Foundation director Erich Bloch advocate the use of this definition. All of the following deviations from this strict standard create problems.

An earmark is a research project or facility directly funded by the Congress. This more limited definition of earmarking is the one most commonly recognized within the scientific community and by the higher-education associations. Both direct congressional authorizations and appropriations for projects are categorized as earmarks. This definition, however, excludes projects proposed by an executive-branch agency, even if that agency did not employ a peer review panel.

The Association of American Universities (AAU) employed such a definition in its 1989 resolution on facilities funding, which stated that, "by 'earmarking' we mean appropriations that designate funding for research . . . without prior designation from the agency concerned or from a competitive process.

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