In an "earmark-free" era, universities that for years relied on friends in Congress try to win grants like everyone else -- by applying for them.
August 16, 2011

When the easy pork runs out, institutions have to take a different approach if they want to bring home the bacon.

That’s the lesson that institutions like West Virginia University and Mississippi State University are learning in the current political climate. The two institutions, like others in their states and many across the country, were longtime beneficiaries of well-placed lawmakers who secured research and infrastructure spending -- often called earmarks or "pork" projects -- outside the competitive process.

But all that has changed, as several powerful lawmakers who helped these institutions are no longer in Congress. These lawmakers came from both sides of the aisle and included party leaders and appropriations chairmen, such as the late West Virginia Senator Robert C. Byrd.

Byrd, the longest-serving senator in history and the top Democrat on the Senate’s appropriations committee for 20 years, died in 2010; the longtime earmarkers remaining in Congress were practically stripped of the traditional means of directing funds to their home states when the House of Representatives voted to prohibit earmarks after Republicans took control of the chamber in the 2010 elections.

Now these institutions are hoping that the investments in their programs through earmarks -- which sometimes amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars over several decades -- have made their research enterprises strong enough to secure competitive grants. While some programs -- particularly in science and engineering -- are succeeding in their efforts, others see a dim future without earmarks because competitive or other funding is limited or because they cannot compete with better-established programs.

“Going back several years, one could probably say that this campus had been reliant on Congressionally directed funding as a reasonably predictable source of research funding,” said Curt M. Peterson, vice president for research and economic development at West Virginia University. “But in the climate that we’re in now -- that we have really been in for the last decade – and looking forward, we clearly have to be more competitive.”

The Earmark Debate

The debate over earmarks, particularly those for research, has existed for decades, and both sides’ positions are well-established.

Earmarks -- direct Congressional orders for federal agencies to provide funds to support various projects -- circumvent the peer review process that many argue is designed to make sure the best research is supported. Critics say earmarking almost by definition results in worse science, whereas peer review rewards institutions and states that have invested for years in building up research universities so that they can compete.

In 2005, the Association of American Universities stated that "AAU institutions have a responsibility to support a strong research program based on merit and should refrain from seeking or accepting earmarks that put merit-reviewed funding at risk." A 2003 paper by A. Abigail Payne, a professor of economics at McMaster University, found that increases in earmarked research funding led to more scholarly articles but a decline in the quality of those articles as measured by citations, though that might be because earmarked projects are often for applied projects rather than pure research. Many critics also say that earmarks add to federal spending, and they have come under increased scrutiny as groups push to cut the national government's spending.

Proponents argue that earmarks can help level the playing field for less-prestigious institutions, often located in rural or resource-poor regions, which are too often shut out of what sometimes seems like a “clubby” competitive grant process. They argue that earmarked research dollars can help institutions develop the capacity to be more competitive in the future, strengthening competition.

Competitive research dollars are unevenly distributed and tend to be concentrated at certain institutions. States that are home to institutions with a long history of securing research funding, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Stanford University, tend to receive more in peer-reviewed funds year after year.

When earmarks were stripped from the federal budgeting process, the argument was predominantly a fiscal one, despite the fact that earmarks made up less than 1 percent of the federal budget. Still, they meant a lot to some institutions: an analysis of the federal budget by Inside Higher Ed determined that colleges and universities received roughly $2 billion in earmarks in 2010.

While most research universities have gotten earmarks over the years, most also did well on competitive grants. But at institutions such as West Virginia and Mississippi State, earmarks made up a large chunk of the research budget. "These smaller schools would have a greater percentage of their research budgets coming from earmarks, and thus this impact would be greater on them,” said Patrick Clemins, director of the research and development budget and policy program for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

While there has been significant exploration of who receives earmarks, there has been little investigation of whether they have helped stimulate competitive research success over the long term. Now that they are gone, several institutions are about to find out.

New Strengths in West Virginia

West Virginia University's history with earmarks is intertwined with the career of Senator Byrd. The university, as well as the other institutions in West Virginia, benefited greatly from Byrd’s prominent placement in the Senate, particularly once Byrd came to chair the Senate Appropriations Committee in 1989. (He remained the top Democrat on the committee through 2009.)

During those years, the university received hundreds of millions of dollars in research and infrastructure programs for various programs, including the National Alternative Fuels Training Consortium, the Forensic Science Program, the National Small Flows Clearinghouse, the Consortium for Fossil Fuels Liquefaction Science, and the Constructed Facilities Center. Some of these programs received annual funding that comprised the majority of their operating budgets, while others received money for new buildings or particular initiatives.

Between 2008 and 2010, West Virginia University received $48 million in earmarked funding, according to LegiStorm, a website that tracks congressional earmarks.

Peterson, who has helped oversee West Virginia’s research programs since 2005, said that he arrived at the university around the time that administrators recognized that Congressionally directed funding was likely on the chopping block and that the university would have to become more competitive in securing grants if it hoped to maintain its research capacity. His office instituted several reforms, such as offering workshops on writing competitive grants, providing grant-writing mentors for junior faculty members, and hiring a consultant to review proposals before they are submitted.

Since 2005, West Virginia has more than doubled the total amount of money it receives through competitive grants. That year, the university brought in $14 million in competitive funding. In 2011, it brought in $29 million.

While its competitive funding has grown, West Virginia still falls significantly short of the major research universities that bring in hundreds of millions of dollars a year in federal funding. A analysis by the National Science Foundation found that the University of Michigan system brought in about $636 million in federal funding in 2009, though not all of that was competitive.

Some programs at West Virginia have been able to capitalize on earmarked dollars better than others. An obesity program at the university that received about $3 million in earmarked research funding in 2003 and 2004 was recently awarded two grants totaling about $12 million. He also pointed to the program in forensic science, a field he said offers little in the way of competitive funding, as another success story, noting that the program is one of the most popular undergraduate programs at the university and a point of pride for the university.

Peterson also mentioned the Constructed Facilities Center, run by Hota V.S. GangaRao, a professor of civil and environmental engineering. After millions of dollars in earmarks during Byrd's tenure that made up about 50 percent of the center's budget, the center is starting to see success at winning competitive grants, including a $240,000 grant last year. GangaRao said his center was doing "reasonably well," but was definitely hurt by Byrd's death. He said the loss of earmarks has forced him to seek out new partnerships with state agencies and private businesses such as defense contractors to maintain the center's research. Without the earmarks, GangaRao said, the center has been forced to shift away from pure research to more applied research.

Peterson said the university has placed a significant emphasis on science and engineering areas to try to grow its research capacity, particularly four interdisciplinary areas where it believes it has the infrastructure to be competitive: energy and the environment, biomedicine, nanoscience, and biometrics and forensics. The university has some history of earmarks in all four areas. "We're not trying to be everything for everybody," he said. "We know we have to focus."

Barriers in Mississippi

Mississippi State’s story is similar to West Virginia's, though the trend is less pronounced. The university, like many others in Mississippi, secured significant funding through several well-placed lawmakers, including Sen. Trent Lott, the former Republican leader in the Senate, and Sen. Thad Cochran, currently the top Republican on the appropriations committee (to name just two -- the state has a long history of earmarkers).

Because of its background as a land-grant institution, the university received many earmarks for agriculture research, including programs in aquaculture production and biomass research, and rural development, particularly in the delta region.

Mississippi State's research dollars have not had a constant upward trajectory like West Virginia's. Since 2006, the university's total sponsored research -- including competitive grants, earmarks, and other sources of research funding -- has fluctuated between a high of $205 million in 2007 and a low of $146 million in 2009. In 2011, the university secured $156 million in research awards. Shaw said that while the loss of earmarks hasn't hurt the university's research engine, the numbers show that Mississippi State has not been as successful as West Virginia in growing its research capacity.

David Shaw, vice president for research and economic development, said there is definitely an emphasis on taking programs that did receive earmarks and making them competitive at winning grants. "There’s always a mandate that these would not be forever initiatives," Shaw said. Typically, he said, it has taken programs at Mississippi State that have received significant Congressional support about two years before they start showing payoff in securing competitive research dollars or other forms of support.

Several of the earmarked programs he cited as success stories did not necessarily win competitive funds, but helped drive development in the local economy, such as the university's Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems and the Sustainable Energy Research Center.

But not all programs have been able to capitalize on their years of earmarks.

Craig S. Tucker runs the Thad Cochran National Warmwater Aquaculture Center, named after the state’s senior Republican senator who now chairs the Senate appropriations committee. The center, which is a joint venture of several departments at Mississippi State and scientists from the USDA's Agricultural Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture, predominantly researches the production of catfish. Since 1979, the center has seen a steady stream of congressional money, and Tucker said it could be the longest continually-funded earmark in the country. Most years the earmark totaled about $350,000, though some years it was as much as $1.6 million. Between 1990 and 2003, Mississippi State received more than $16 million for aquaculture research, much of it for the center.

Despite 30 years of earmarks, the center has not seen significant success at generating other revenue streams. With earmarks gone, it is struggling financially.

Tucker said there are not a lot of competitive research opportunities for much of what the program does. The catfish industry isn't large enough to support a lot of the original research in the way the corn industry supports university programs. If the center does focus solely on what it can secure grants for, it might end up abandoning part of its mission, Tucker said. The major competitive grants awarded to the center revolve around genetics and microbiology, but there are few opportunities for money studying production and nutrition. When it does go after competitive grants to study major issues like diseases, the center has to compete with larger, more established animal production industries, such as poultry and cattle.

For several years, Tucker and other representatives of the center have been making the case for some level of federally directed funding might be necessary to continue certain programs. Competitive grant processes often focus on widely applicable ideas instead of what's important locally, he said. "If we have to rely on competitive grants, our program emphasis would likely shift dramatically away from doing work farmers want us to do," he said.

Future Funding

Several researchers said the era of earmarks that was so good to institutions like West Virginia and Mississippi State is likely over, and if earmarks do return, they will probably be less common and less valuable. Shaw and Paterson both said that the current climate will put pressure on institutions like theirs to find new sources of funding to maintain research productivity.

Both opponents and proponents said there will always be earmarking in one form or another. Citizens Against Government Waste, a group that campaigns against earmarks, said they have spotted directed projects in the current budget despite the moratorium, though lawmakers do not call them earmarks.

"Eventually they’ll come back," Clemins said. "But I don’t see any in the near future. You used to have a lot of institutions trying to defend earmarks. You don’t see a lot of defense of earmarks anymore. People don’t like them. They see it as waste and unfair. I don't seen any public opinion changing any time soon."


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