FORGET the space station. Never mind the supercollider particle accelerator. To cut true waste from federal research spending, go after the "pork" - facilities and programs sneaked into various agency research budgets by members of Congress for the benefit of colleges and universities back home. Usually they pass no review for merit.
The academic pork barrel totaled about $2.5 billion between fiscal years 1980 and 1992, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS). In fiscal 1992 alone, 500 pork projects had a total net value of $707 million. What was an undesirable nuisance has become an unacceptable raid on research budgets. It distorts the mission of those budgets and robs authorized projects of funding.
Why should the National Aeronautics and Space Administration have to divert $2.8 million for a "Classroom of the Future" at Wheeling Jesuit College in West Virginia? Or why should the Department of Energy have to pay $10 million for a cancer treatment facility at the University of Indiana at Indianapolis Medical School? These are worthwhile facilities, but taking funds from authorized, carefully reviewed research programs is not the way to finance them.
Proponents of pork-style funding have argued that the merit-review process is biased toward large, well-known institutions. They claim that earmarked funding helps the have-not institutions and spreads money around geographically. But the CRS study shows that 54.4 percent of all the earmarked funds went to just 20 institutions; 50.5 percent went to just 10 states.
Earmarking is a subversion of Congress's system, not a corrective. Lawmakers slip earmarked funds into appropriation bills at the last minute after authorizing committees have already established an agency's research budget. The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology has announced hearings to probe the academic pork problem in depth. If this proves embarrassing for the institutions involved, so be it. It's time for tough action. Perhaps it will prod Congress to reform its rules to prevent such
subversion of authorized research budgets.