WASHINGTON — Call it a parallel universe. Ever since the 1980s, college presidents wanting to bulk up research facilities with public dollars had two options.
They could compete for them through established peer-review systems. (It helped to be Harvard.)
Or, they could do an end run around the peer-review system and get a friendly member of Congress to write the project directly into the budget of a federal agency. (It helped to have a home-state senator on an appropriations committee.)
Academic earmarks jumped from $15 million the first year of the Reagan presidency to $336 million in fiscal year 1989, the year he left office. By the 1990s, academic institutions rivaled defense contractors as consumers of lobby services to win federal earmarks – and helped define a new lobbying specialty in Washington's K Street corridor: "directed appropriations."
A sizeable portion of academic earmarks goes to research and development, which has grown from $1.4 billion in 2003 to about $2.4 billion in 2006, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
The political path to research dollars distorts federal priorities and corrupts a keystone of academic life: merit and peer review, critics say.
"Federal research agencies were created to address certain national needs: curing diseases, national defense, space exploration. Earmarking undermines their ability to set priorities, create coherent programs, and spend their money optimally," says James Savage, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "Earmarks are all about political power. It has nothing to do with scientific merit."
While many of the nation's elite institutions backed statements condemning the practice of earmarking as early as 1983, no one enforced them.
"When there's a general increase in the inclination of members of Congress to earmark and other institutions are getting them, it creates an incentive to do likewise," says Robert Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities (AAU), which opposes academic earmarks.
In 1983 – after the presidents of Columbia University in New York and the Catholic University of America here each snagged $5 million in federal earmarks to build new research facilities on their campuses – the AAU called for a moratorium on "actions that would make scientific decisions a test of political influence rather than a judgment on the quality of work to be done."
But over the next two decades, earmarks – and lobbying expenses to win them – soared. With federal deficits mounting, the competition for federal research dollars became intense. Yet, academic earmarks continued to grow.
The AAU in October renewed its call to curb congressional earmarking of federal funds as a threat to "the quality of our national research program."
When President Bush announced his American Competitiveness Initiative – $50 billion over 10 years to increase funding for research and $86 billion for research and development tax incentives – 44 of 60 AAU members agreed not to try to earmark those funds.
"Those that signed this statement will try very hard to abide by it," says Mr. Berdahl. "For us, the bottom line would be that basic research, ultimately the fountain of innovation, is best served by a very rigorous, critical, peer-review process. Those agencies that fund basic research are best served by having their budget protected from any other form of influence on the allocation," he adds.
Supporters of academic earmarks say such spending can create new centers of scientific excellence. "Until competition was successfully enlarged by means of earmarked funds ... the peer-review process was almost exclusively dominated by a tight little network of established universities. They still crowd it, but less so than they used to," said John Silber, former chancellor at Boston University, at an AAAS colloquium on earmarks in 2001.
Other experts say there needs to be a way to provide research money to schools that would otherwise have a snowball's chance in Tupelo, Miss., of competing with Harvard or Stanford. "You need a counterforce that tries to spread money out and build up universities and colleges that don't have a chance [for competitive funding]," says David Hart, a public policy professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "The problem is that Congress is not the place to do that. Now it's gotten out of control."