Cutting `Academic Pork'

THERE'S been a quiet victory for taxpayers this fall in Congress, which reversed the long-term growth in ``academic pork'' - money for scientific research projects and facilities that lawmakers sneak into agency budgets for the benefit of colleges and universities back home.

We can thank the persistent efforts of lawmakers such as Rep. George Brown Jr. (D) of California and Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia for this political miracle. Mr. Brown's vigorous anti-pork campaign this year appears to have been especially effective.

Brown, who chairs the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, warns that some major items may have eluded his staff. Also, pork taken out of a budget today may slip back in tomorrow. Still, a dramatic change has come to two key appropriations: for energy and water, which includes the Department of Energy, and for the multi-agency group that includes the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Brown says that these two budget areas alone contained $202 million in academic pork in fiscal 1992 and $237 million in 1993. That has dropped to $46.3 million for 1994.

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This is welcome news. The total money earmarked for the pet science projects of senators and representatives hit an all-time high of $760 million last year. Much of this represents a tremendous diversion of federal research funds from projects that have passed muster on their merits to projects that have had no merit review; the latter were neither requested by the president nor screened by authorizing committees on Capitol Hill.

Brown and his congressional allies should continue their campaign to curb this wasteful practice. Yet they also must recognize that ``pork'' often met a genuine need. Many academic institutions have to refurbish old laboratories or build new ones. Federal support for facilities has been less forthcoming than for research. Funding agencies have begun to respond to the need: The NSF budget for facilities has doubled this year to $100 million, for example. But much more will be needed to wean universities from lobbying for special treatment.

The anti-pork crusaders should mount a second campaign: to provide adequate money for research facilities.

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