Four million dollars goes a long way at Glenville State College. It may seem unlikely that the tiny West Virginia institution would see that much federal money in a single spending bill, but that’s about what Glenville got in the 2006 appropriations legislation for science and other programs.
That was just one of dozens of earmarks in the bill, and one of several that set aside more than $1 million for institutions from Mississippi and West Virginia, homes of the Republican chairman and the ranking Democrat, respectively, of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Whether earmarks -- funds that a member of Congress directs to recipients without the peer-review process that federal agencies use to dole out most research funds -- are dangerously and increasingly undermining peer review, or simply a way that legislators can look out for constituents, depends on who’s talking.
The question, however, has been put into greater relief for higher education officials in the wake of a letter from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) asking 111 institutions to send him information on all of the money they have received from earmarks since 2000, and whether they have considered paying lobbyists to help secure the earmarks.
The letter from Coburn, a vocal opponent of earmarks, has been interpreted by some experts as an attempt to find examples of wasteful earmarks that might be used to combat the practice of earmarking -- often derided as "pork-barrel spending" -- altogether. John Hart, a spokesman for Coburn, said that the senator is particularly interested in finding out whether there’s a "pay to play" system that forces colleges to waste money by "spending extravagantly" on lobbyists.
Kei Koizumi, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said that AAAS’s position is that peer review is the "highest quality way to allocate funds," he said, "but we recognize that there are many different ways to allocate funds."
Koizumi added that some federal objectives, such as building research capacity in geographical areas wihout huge research infrastructures, may not have the possibility of getting funded through a competitive grant process.
The Glenville State money, for example, was for science laboratories, equipment and programs, according to the legislation.
Annette Barnette, a spokeswoman for Glenville State, said that renovations to the science building will be done using state funds, and that the federal money will "mainly be used for programs to do outreach to public schools and increase interest in math and sciences and help teachers in the public school system with things they need to know to guide their students," in addition to distance learning.
Koizumi said that the scientists he hears from are concerned that, in a time of flat funding for research, earmarks drain the pool even more, forcing institutions to spend big in order to gain big. Earmarking can "set up these incentives in which universities feel they have to lobby for earmarks to get a shot at having research funds."
According to federal lobbying records, Glenville State has not paid a lobbyist. (It is important to note, though, that some colleges and other entities have interpreted the Lobbying Disclosure Act in ways that they believe exempts them.) Many colleges, though, have sent some money in K Street’s direction. Most colleges that hired lobbyists spent in the tens-of-thousands in 2005, but even some small colleges went big. Lorain County Community College in Ohio spent $100,000. Lorain County received $370,000 in earmarked funds for its Great Lakes Business Growth and Development Center in the 2006 fiscal year, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington nonprofit group that tracks government spending.
Bill Parker, the University of California at Irvine’s vice chancellor for research, said that earmarking does "an end run around the peer review process … it changes the rules of the game from the quality of science to the influence of legislators." Parker said that earmarking only leads to more earmarking which only leads to more institutions spending more on lobbying to get more earmarking. "It’s not in the best interest of the country."
Parker added that, while increasing research capacity is a good thing in general, the way to make sure that research capacity is built where it is most effective is through a competitive proposal process.
Several years ago, the Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education had so many earmarks that the competitive grant process disappeared entirely.
Parker said that he doesn’t have a problem with Coburn’s letter if it helps combat earmarking. "It may embarrass some people," he said, "but shedding light on the downside of earmarks is in the public interest."
Some lobbyists who work with colleges and spoke on the condition of anonymity said that, if Coburn were serious about objectively evaluating earmarking, he would go through a third party, like the Government Accountability Office. Lobbyists also pointed out that legislators have every right to vote against earmarks in Congress, and that Coburn might be taking the anti-earmark fight to colleges and universities because it hasn’t gone as he had hoped in Congress.
Hart, Coburn's spokesman, said that his boss, who heads a Senate subcommittee on federal financial management, is not singling out higher education, and has sought similar information from, for example, the Small Business Administration. Hart added that recent high profile lobbying scandals, like those involving Jack Abramoff and former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.), have "highlighted the degree to which Congress and K Street have abused the earmark process."
A 2005 policy statement by the Association of American Universities says that AAU is "concerned" that earmarking reduces support for "the most promising research." Still, many of AAU’s members have received earmarks.
Some lobbyists said that some prominent institutions, even if they don’t receive earmarks, have laboratories -- like the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory -- that essentially don’t have competitors for some research money.
Howard Garrison, a spokesman for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, said that FASEB opposes earmarks, except in some specific capacity-building instances that maintain a competitive process. The U.S. Department of Energy's Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, for example, supports competitive grants in states that haven’t historically received big federal research dollars.
Generally, to build research capacity, Garrison said, "you don’t need earmarks, what you need is committed funding and insightful leadership from the states."