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Academic Earmarking: Unanswered Questions

Published in the Winter 2002 issue of The Presidency (ACE publication)

In an era of vaulting institutional ambitions and contracting economies, colleges and universities have become ever more expansive in seeking dollars to support growing research agendas. It may be that great needs and appeals widely cast are undermining what we seek to support. In particular, growth in the number of earmarks sought and obtained seems simultaneously to relieve some of research's growing pains while at the same time challenging long-held academic values. For college presidents who seek them, the dilemma over earmarks as a component of the funding process causes loud and perhaps healthy cognitive dissonance.

Academic earmarking (our sector's form of pork barreling), although once inconceivable among the top-tier universities, has become central to many universities' strategies for research and construction of research space. In academic earmarking, universities bypass peer review and apply directly to members of Congress for funds in appropriations bills. In this manner, science is funded through the largesse of individual members of Congress rather than through the educated judgment of scientists. Who performs scientific research (and where) is decided by a political process rather than by peer review. This mingling of the political and the scientific opens the prospect of questionable influence on science itself and leaves us in an ethical quandary.

Earmarking is not actually a new problem. For almost twenty-five years, American universities have grappled with the distinct possibility that funds that come to us from outside the process of peer review may undermine scientific integrity.1 For nearly twenty years, the AAU has been doing the same, issuing white papers and resolutions, appointing study groups and committees, all with the intention of discouraging earmarking. Meanwhile, during these twenty years, institutions receiving earmarked funds and the numbers of dollars earmarked by Congress have increased dramatically.

Numbers tell part of the story. In 1980, Congress earmarked $16 million for scientific research for about a dozen colleges and universities. In fiscal year 2001, The Chronicle for Higher Education reports, $1.67 billion of federal research funds were earmarked for nearly 200 colleges and universities.2 This number includes many AAU institutions. In fact, since the adoption of AAU's 1983 moratorium on earmarking, fewer than ten and perhaps as few as five or six member institutions have refrained from seeking federal earmarked funds.3 The coming year promises to be no different. As a result of new funds related to September 11 and its aftermath, earmarking this year will exceed $2 billion, outpacing the 14 per cent proposed growth in the year's NIH budget. Despite all the institutional deliberation and hand wringing, many of us continue to obtain earmarked funds. What is going on here?

We find ourselves at this pass for several reasons, according to my colleague James Savage. First, the pleasing novelty of federal budget surpluses in the late 1990s gave Congress more money and the inclination to dole it out to constituents. Second, abandoning an earlier pledge to eliminate pork barrel spending, a Republican Congress embraced the practice of earmarking. Third, while so-called congressional "saints," or opponents of pork-barreling, were never numerous, the deaths of such members as George Brown and Bill Natcher and the ascension of fewer like-minded Members to positions of power weakened the force opposed to earmarking.4 Fourth, observing colleagues seek and win significant federal funds through the once unconventional political route, university presidents by-and-large lost their inhibitions about seeking earmarks. With no sanctions imposed by professional organizations, universities pay no penalty for behavior that arguably is bad for science.5

Some within the academic community see no need for penalties, and see the growth of earmarking as a positive development in research funding. They argue that the normal process of scientific peer review is biased in favor of a few elite institutions, which benefit from a closed, old-boy network. They argue that in funding science at institutions and in regions traditionally slighted in the peer-review process, democracy is at work creating new research opportunities in have-not institutions and under-served regions.6 Likewise, with federal funding programs for building research facilities virtually non-existent, only wealthy colleges and universities with significant donor support can build the kind of laboratory space necessary for conducting scientific research.

Again, the argument goes, universities with fewer resources need earmarking to advance scientific programs, and earmarking offsets the inadequacies of an indirect cost system that fails to fund the true cost of research facility construction and maintenance, and instead rewards established, research-intensive institutions. Finally, in reasoning that pays eloquent tribute to raw self-interest, proponents of earmarking note that everyone else is seeking earmarked funds and so the university president must also, or risk losing the money race and abdicating fiscal responsibility to her or his institution.

Persons less sanguine about earmarking believe peer review is a necessary condition of good science. While supporters of earmarking say that peer review is biased and that it unfairly concentrates research funding in a small number of elite universities, opponents point out that earmarking does the same, reflecting the reality that neither scientific merit nor political power is equally distributed. (In this regard, one might paraphrase Churchill and say that peer review is the worst kind of evaluative method–except for all the others.) Proponents of peer review argue that some 60 percent of all earmarked dollars go to colleges and universities represented by chairs of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.

Moreover, the distribution of earmarks by Congress almost exactly mirrors that of peer-reviewed funds. While the top 10 university recipients of federal research dollars receive 22 percent of these funds, the top 10 earmarking schools obtain 21 percent of earmarked funds.7 This pattern continues year after year, a phenomenon that suggests that, rather than remedying the concentration of research funding, academic earmarking produces its own biases and creates political insider relationships. The bottom line question is, who would you have judge the merit of science research proposals–scientists or politicians?

Although opponents of earmarking have a ready answer to this question, they realize that we cannot yet answer several basic questions. They worry, for instance, that we do not know much about the quality of the science being funded through earmarking. They wonder whether earmarked funds produce high quality science, or whether they are wasteful and ineffective. In one, perhaps cynical, sense, earmarked projects always provide value to recipient institutions, even if their research facilities are turned into simple warehouses for research apparatus. In another, perhaps more practical sense, the issue is not the worth of an earmark in some absolute sense, but rather its relative or competitive value in a sort of race between research centers. We might ask whether a particular earmark was the best way to use funds, and whether these funds might have been put to better use at a more qualified university with more qualified faculty. More to the point perhaps is the question whether these earmarked dollars were used by the recipient university to make it more competitive while also promoting the common good.

And still there are more questions. What data support the claim that earmarked dollars act as "seed corn," enabling institutions to improve significantly their research capability and competitiveness? Since 1980, some $10 billion in federal funds have been earmarked, but so far we have no systematic information about the quality of the projects supported by these funds or how these institutions use them. It would be helpful to have information about the number of patents produced, new journal articles and books created and citations noted, the number of Ph.D. students supported and successfully graduated, the number of women and minority graduate students funded, and the number and value of competitive research grants subsequently awarded. All of these standard indicators of quality are necessary if we are to judge whether earmarked funds actually do serve the institutions to which they are awarded, and ultimately whether they serve to advance scientific knowledge.

We do know a few things. We know that there is no direct relationship between a university's level of earmarking and its research competitiveness. Some universities that have received hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks have actually experienced a decline in their NSF ranking of overall federal research funding, a major indicator of scientific competitiveness. Science magazine, for example, reported in May that the top institutional recipient of earmarks, with receipts totaling some $300 million, fell nine ranks below its pre-earmarking level. Of institutions that received at least $47 million in earmarks between 1980 and 1998, when it could be measured, more experienced declines in ranking than experienced increases. Of the top earmarking universities, each of which received more than $50 million in funds, only six saw their NSF rankings increasing at least five of more places, while seven fell five or more ranks.8

Still, we need to answer the most compelling challenge to peer review. How do we remedy the problem of the seeming perpetuation of historic inequality between strong (hence, wealthy) and weak (hence, not so wealthy) universities? Earmarking proponents and the AAU propose a partial answer. They suggest that the National Science Foundation's Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCOR) program be used to support less-established or developing research institutions, so that over time these will be able to compete for peer reviewed funds. As the AAU's white paper on earmarking points out, criteria other than pure scientific merit figure in the funding process. The AAU and others endorse, for example, special consideration for women and minority researchers. Although they support consideration of special criteria in the decision-making process, they argue that the final awards should be determined through a merit review procedure that rewards the strongest applications. Otherwise, EPSCOR risks becoming a simple patronage program. This may not be a perfect answer, but it goes a good way toward addressing questions about the fairness of peer review.

It would seem that about earmarking there are more questions than answers. Space will allow mention of just one more. For more than twenty years college and university presidents have struggled to come to terms with two competing goods: enriching the institutions for which they are responsible; and protecting the integrity of knowledge. It is time to decide which good is greater. If not now, when?


  1. I am indebted in this article and in the spoken remarks that preceded it at the AAU fall 2001 meeting to my colleagues James Savage and Meg Klosko, who have been both mentors and teachers. James Savage points out that one of the earliest instances of earmarking came in 1977 when Tufts University received $10 million in earmarked funds for its veterinary school. (James D. Savage, Funding Science in America: Congress Universities, and the Politics of the Academic Pork Barrel, [Cambridge University Press, 1999]: 49.)
  2. Jeffrey Brainard and Ron Southwick, “A Record Year at the Federal Trough: Colleges Feast on $1.67-Billion in Earmarks, Chronicle of Higher Education (10 August 2001).
  3. My own institution, the University of Virginia, has received three to four million earmarked dollars since 1980. So far as I can tell, these earmarks were for our oceanography program, Center for Governmental Studies, and for transportation studies.
  4. One of the most prominent and vocal critics of earmarking is Senator John McCain, but it is hard to think of many others.
  5. James Savage, “The Ethical Challenges of the Academic Pork Barrel.” (Paper presented to the Universities of Illinois and California at Berkeley, and at the AAAS annual conference, 2001: 3-7.)
  6. See Robert Silber. (Remarks made at the 26th AAS Colloquium on Science and Technology Policy, Plenary Session Panel: “Funding Academic Science in an Age of Earmarks,” 3-4 May 2001, Washington, D.C.)
  7. James Savage, “The Ethical Challenges of the Academic Pork Barrel.” (Op. cit. p.13.)
  8. David Malakoff, “Perfecting the Art of the Science Deal,” (Science, 4 May 2001, No. 292): 831-835.