One university's key to R&D – the right senator
STARKVILLE, MISS. — Like most public universities, Mississippi State wants to help improve the state economy – the nation's poorest.
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."
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.
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.
"Nobody's going to sell the federal treasury for a steak at Delmonico's," says MSU's Mr. Wiseman. "But it does give you two or three hours to say, 'Here is what I think we can accomplish if these dollars are made available,' and Marty Fuller has proved to be very adept at doing that."
Fuller explains his approach. "Our strategy has always been to go to D.C. [for earmarks] in support of the competitive programs as well as things that would advance programs here at MSU," he says. "[Earmarks are] not just about benefiting the state and its economic development, but they do produce very good research that is of national significance."
While many school officials welcome the funds, some find it hard to follow the money, and they question the lack of transparency in the process. The school's three-year-old Industrial Outreach Service (IOS) received a $5 million earmark this year. But only $500,000 has arrived so far. Even considering the 40 percent overhead most universities deduct from earmarks, IOS director Joe Jordan isn't really clear himself what happened to the money.
"I've done a lot of wondering about how all this happened myself," says Mr. Jordan, who now questions whether earmarks are a good way to fund research. "I'd like to see more light and transparency on it." University officials say the rest of the money went to the broader theme of "industrial outreach" rather than the IOS itself.
Public policy experts say it's not clear that academic earmarks are bearing fruit. Consider the case of MSU's Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems (CAVS), a low-slung, window-paneled building where the sun explodes off the chrome. CAVS, which has designed a new radar unit for Humvees and made advancements in light metals technology, received a $4 million earmark this year.
CAVS was crucial in luring Nissan to the state. But it competes against 32 other US auto research centers for earmarks and for work. Such a patchwork policy, critics say, explains why the US lags other nations in developing hybrid vehicles.
"Earmarks reward people and programs who, instead of being scientifically competent, are politically well placed, and the result of that is we make less progress in gaining knowledge of things that presumably are of a critical nature to the country," says Mr. Utt at Heritage.
MSU even has a federal road project that will serve only a small group of people, kind of like the "bridge to nowhere" that got Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska in so much trouble with budget hawks. But the earmark that will create a bypass to State Road 25, cutting off 20 minutes for university commuters from Jackson, is actually an example of a "road to somewhere," says an MSU architecture professor, who would only comment if his name wasn't mentioned. "Earmarks are OK if there's an obvious need as opposed to, 'If you build it, they will come,' " he says.
Earmarks can work to taxpayers' advantage, supporters say. They allow schools like MSU, a land-grant university with offices in all 82 state counties, to receive money for tailored programs that would not fit neatly into a federal "umbrella" program, Wiseman says.
For example, the school got a $500,000 earmark to send budget consultants to poor rural towns for job training. And the Mississippi Writing/Thinking Institute which has been criticized by taxpayer groups, has shown clear and positive results, says its former director, Sherry Swain. The Writing/Thinking Institute used federal money to fund essay competitions in which winners read their works on the radio.
The arrival of a new steel mill and a European-owned helicopter company to Columbus, Miss., provides proof that Mississippi-based earmarked research is successful, officials say. Moreover, a new earmark-funded Cyber Crime Lab at MSU will have 40 law enforcement officers from West Virginia as students next semester, signifying its regional, if not national, importance.
But despite such successes, earmarks may not be sufficient to keep talented students in the state, suggests Jim Adams, a budget expert at MSU's Stennis Institute. Without enough jobs, most graduate students leave Mississippi, he says, and put their learning to use away from the land of magnolias.