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One university's key to R&D – the right senator

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 1, 2006


Like most public universities, Mississippi State wants to help improve the state economy – the nation's poorest.

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But unlike most schools, MSU is getting $37.2 million this year in special help from Congress to get the job done.

It's a magnet for money – call it pulled "pork" – that few schools can rival. By comparison, North Carolina State University, which serves a population four times larger, got $500,000 this year.

The $37.2 million speaks to the school's efforts in research and development and in industrial outreach. But it also signals MSU's political connections in obtaining federal earmarks – money for pet projects that lawmakers add anonymously to spending bills. It's a trend that's growing prodigiously in academia.

"Ten years ago, earmarks in academia were viewed as dirty pool, but now it's just a different approach to the federal government fostering academic research," says MSU's Marty Wiseman, director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government.

Here at MSU's center campus in Starkville, where gleaming research labs rise from the old cotton fields, earlier earmarks have helped the school create a plant-nursery robot and a furniture science program that developed a way to turn soft woods into hard woods.

Today, federal funds will aid MSU efforts to net cyber criminals, master the collection of cotton motes, and improve on a 35-mpg hybrid car developed by the university.

"The return we're getting on federal [earmarks] is very high," says MSU's Colin Scanes, vice president for research and economic development."It's affecting economic development in Mississippi and the Southeast, and it's delivering what the agencies want us to deliver."

Power of the appropriations chair

It's a delivery made possible in part by the patronage of Sen. Thad Cochran (R) of Mississippi. Funding for MSU got a boost when Senator Cochran got promoted. In fiscal year 2005, when Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska was chairman of the committee, MSU received $19.8 million in congressional earmarks. In fiscal year 2006, when Cochran became appropriations chair, it received $37.2 million in earmarks.

Cochran defends the practice, asserting that elected representatives often have more insight than a bureaucracy into what's best for the state – and the country. "The primary consideration [for earmarks] is whether or not the request, or funding, is in the public interest, ... and whether it provides quality of life or economic prospects for our future – and 'our' meaning the United States," says the former Eagle Scout who made Time magazine's list of 10 Best senators this year for his work securing funds for hurricane Katrina relief.

Though earmarks are created anonymously, Mississippians know how the money flows: There's the Thad Cochran National Warmwater Aquaculture Center at MSU's Stoneville campus, where scientists study, among other things, how to eliminate the off-taste of cultivated catfish.

There's also the Thad Cochran Research, Technology and Economic Development Park here and, at his alma mater, the University of Mississippi in Oxford, the Thad Cochran Research Center, where scientists are looking for ways to use medicinal plants as cash crops.

Critics say that kind of patronage can aid a lawmaker's reelection efforts – on the federal dime. "Universities have long mastered the whole vanity game of naming rights [for new campus facilities], and in recent years they've added politicians who, unlike philanthropic donors giving their own money, are the Thad Cochrans of the world giving someone else's money," says Ron Utt, a budget expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

MSU's political skill

But MSU doesn't rely just on the kindness of political friends. It relies on its skilled government liaison, salaried lobbyist Marty Fuller. Mr. Fuller, his friends say, is a prototypical Southern storyteller, cut from the same cloth as Tennessee Williams. He's equally at home at the farm as at a tony Georgetown eatery, they say.