Issue Date: August 7, 2006
Got a research idea? need funding but aren't having any luck getting a federal grant? Try Congress. Scientists and their universities are increasingly reaching around traditional peer-reviewed grant programs and going directly to Congress for congressionally mandated grants, so-called earmarks.
Although Congress has a constitutional right to direct federal funds to a specific program or project, the practice of earmarking for academic science has grown dramatically over the past 20 years and now threatens to cut into research and development funds used to support merit-based competitive grants administered by federal agencies. Additionally, because earmarked science has not been awarded funding on the basis of merit, questions remain about the quality and value of such work.
Earmarks come into play during the appropriations process, which starts in February each year, when the President submits the budget request for the next fiscal year to Congress for approval. The budget request spells out the funding needs of federal agencies to support priorities identified by the Administration.
As Congress works to approve the budget, members can decide to add programs and projects they think are warranted but are not in the President's request. These mandates, or earmarks, are inserted into the appropriations bills or the language of the report that accompanies the bill. The designated funds are then distributed by the assigned agency.
"I believe earmarks are a problem for science," says John H. Marburger III, director of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP) and science adviser to the President. "In general, earmarks for science tend to take the funding of research out of the system of proposals and evaluations," he points out. It's not always the case that earmarked science is not worthy, he says; it's just that funding it in this way removes "an element of public accountability and public assurance."
Just how much money is Congress earmarking for science? According to estimates by OSTP, approximately $2.7 billion from the federal research budget of nearly $135 billion was earmarked for science in fiscal 2006. In a similar estimate from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which tracks the federal budget process, the value of earmarks for R&D was about $2.4 billion.
The $400 million difference in the values estimated by OSTP and AAAS highlights one of the biggest challenges in studying earmarks: how to define them. For example, OSTP defines a research earmark as "the assignment of money during the legislative process for use only by a specific organization or project." AAAS uses a slightly more restrictive definition of "unrequested, congressionally designated, performer-specific R&D projects." While the two definitions are similar, they tend to yield slightly different values.
Regardless of the definition, scientific earmarks are increasing and creating a difficult challenge for federal agencies that are mandated to spend their funds on projects outside of the ones they had planned to fund in a given year.
"In the past few years, the amount of discretionary funding to support federal agencies has flattened out or is declining," explains Kei Koizumi, director of AAAS's R&D Budget & Policy Program. This limited overall funding creates a zero-sum game, he notes, and "that means that, as earmarks increase, they will actually be taking money away from R&D dollars allocated in other ways."
Scientific earmarks are also problematic because they may not be in line with an agency's priorities. "I am particularly concerned with earmarks in areas of science where scientific advisory boards have set priorities," Marburger says. "Typically, earmarks will not be consistent with those priorities established by the advisory panels, so it reduces the impact of federal funds on our research priorities," he explains.
Not all federal agencies are equally affected. For example, agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health have historically been nearly earmark free, while other agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Departments of Defense, Energy, and Agriculture have been magnets for what some have called pork-barrel science.
"It is particularly important that funding for extramural basic research is allocated through a competitive, merit-based process," Marburger says. "NSF and NIH have been most successful in making this case to Congress," he notes.
Although earmarking has not been a problem for NIH in the past, some agency supporters worry that under the current budget conditions that may change. "With the startling number of scientific opportunities that have been generated as a result of the budget doubling and the large number of new investigators," there is more demand on the agency for funding, explains Jon Retzlaff, director of legislative relations for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. This growing demand, coupled with the fact that the fiscal 2007 budget for NIH is expected to be flat, may lead some scientists to go to Congress for money.
Retzlaff cites the National Children's Study−the first large-scale longitudinal study of children's health−as an example of the pressure that may be exerted on NIH, which did not include funding for this study in its budget request. But the House has mandated that the agency fund it in the appropriations bill. (Under some earmark definitions, such as the one used by AAAS, the congressional mandate to fund this study is not considered an earmark because Congress is not specifying the final recipient of the funds.)
"We do not question the merits of this program," Retzlaff says, "but the concern is that, in a time of declining budgets, NIH has to balance its research portfolio." To be told by Congress that the agency must spend $69 million to fund a study when the institute charged with heading it has a flat budget is extremely problematic, he adds.
NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, however, does not see the mandate to fund the study as a problem because it does not undercut the peer review process−the study had been peer reviewed−and does not specifically identify which schools should receive the money. Although Congress does have the right to give NIH general guidance about what to study, Zerhouni notes that such direction could be a problem if it goes unchecked in terms of science quality.
Zerhouni commends Congress for avoiding earmarks in the NIH budget and protecting the peer review system that he holds as sacred. And while "Congress has the power of the purse and they can give us general direction," something that he calls a prioritization exercise and not earmarking, he cautions that anything beyond this general input should be avoided because it's not good for science.
Agencies that do receive earmarks that direct them to fund specific projects at specific institutions may not always be legally bound to follow them. The reason is simple: Most earmarks are inserted into the appropriations bill's report language and not the bill itself and therefore do not become law. Agencies, however, are not inclined to ignore the wishes of Congress.
"In general, agencies try to respect and accommodate the prerogatives of Congress," Marburger notes. "Agencies try to work with the appropriations committees to arrange conditions on the earmarked programs that increase the probability that the funds will be expended productively," he says. "In some instances, agencies are unable to respond to all report language due to time constraints or other competing agency-specific conditions."
With the current escalation in scientific earmarks−which according to AAAS have risen from $1.5 billion in earmarks in fiscal 2002 to $2.4 billion in this year's R&D budget−the question of research quality is coming to the forefront. While it is hard to measure the effects of earmarks on science, a study by A. Abigail Payne sheds some light on the question.
Payne, associate professor and Canadian Research Chair in Public Economics at McMaster University, in Ontario, started her work by looking at how an additional dollar of government funding affects research productivity. It wasn't long before she was looking at the impacts of politically motivated funding such as earmarks on research.
"The difficulty you have when you're looking at the quality of research from earmark-funded work is identifying the specific research that's being produced," Payne says. In her study, she looked at the number of resulting articles published from earmarked research and the number of citations of these published articles (Sci. Public Policy 2002, 29, 314).
The study, which looked at data from 1980 to 1998, showed that earmarks tended to increase the number of publications but decreased the number of citations of the resulting articles. "If you think of the number of publications as a measure of quantity and the citation of a publication as a measure of quality," then earmarks increase the quantity of research but not necessarily the quality, Payne explains.
According to the study, roughly 21 articles were published for every additional $1 million in earmarked funds. Depending on the data set used, this translates to an additional 77 or 97 articles per year from earmarks, a 7% or 11% increase, respectively. Citations of these articles were lower than for other publications by 31% or 9% annually, depending on the data set used.
The quality of research is also something that worries Marburger. "I don't want to prejudge earmarked research," he tells C&EN. "I know a lot of people who go to Congress to get earmarks, and some of them are really great scientists and respected university presidents who have very good judgment, but they're working around a system that we're trying to set up to ensure that taxpayers' dollars are being spent in the best way," he says.
For instance, he points out that 30% of the science and technology areas in the DOD budget are earmarked. "Some of the work those earmarks support might be valuable, but we just don't have any way of assuring the American public of that," Marburger says. In this situation "we're really shooting in the dark," he adds.
Another example of how earmarks of unknown value can detract from important work occurred within the National Institute of Standards & Technology, according to Marburger. It concerned a leak in the roof of the room that houses the atomic clock at NIST's Colorado facility.
"This clock is important for calibrating time standards and is probably one of the most important pieces of apparatus for our economy," Marburger explains. Repairing the leaking roof was problematic, however, because NIST's construction budget, where the money for the roof repair would have come from, was heavily earmarked, he says. In fact, he notes, the institute received earmarks totaling $137 million this year, "which seriously dilute the core research proposed by NIST."
One of the reasons scientific earmarks have grown is increased lobbying by universities. "We seem to be in an era in which public universities are not getting sufficient funding for students or for research," Payne says. "So they are going to find as many avenues as possible to bring in money," she notes.
For James D. Savage, professor of politics at the University of Virginia and author of the book "Funding Science in America: Congress, Universities, and the Politics of the Academic Pork Barrel," scientific earmarks are a problem created by universities. "It's wrong to blame members of Congress for earmarking," he says. This is an internal issue to academia, he adds.
Savage explains that the peer review process was developed by scientists, not Congress, to remove politics from the allocation of research funds. The act of universities seeking out scientific earmarks is counter to the goals of peer review as embraced by the academic community. "It's resulted in the vast politicization of universities in terms of hiring lobbyists, going after earmarks, and to some extent setting research priorities on campus through earmarks."
Universities argue that receiving earmarks for research will help them improve their competitiveness so they will fare better in subsequent merit-based competitions. But that's not what Savage found when he was writing his book.
"If a school received a certain level of earmarks over a period of time, you'd expect that its ability to get competitive funds would improve," Savage notes. Instead, he found that many universities that received earmarks dropped in the NSF rankings on universities. "While there are a few places that you can probably make the case [for improvement], for the most part, earmarks haven't been a great success story for creating great research universities."
The Association of American Universities has recognized that earmarking has become a problem that universities have a role in solving. In a statement approved by its executive committee last fall, AAU reiterated its support for merit-reviewed competition as the "best method of ensuring the quality and cost-effectiveness of federally sponsored research." The statement also noted that AAU institutions "should refrain from seeking or accepting earmarks that put merit-reviewed funding at risk."
But as long as lobbying by universities yields positive returns, some universities' lobbying will continue. One study that looks at the rate of return on lobbying by universities was done by John M. de Figueiredo, assistant professor at the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Brian S. Silverman, Magna International Professor of Strategy at the University of Toronto. A publication with the results of this study has been submitted to the Journal of Law & Economics and is in press.
In their study, de Figueiredo and Silverman looked not only at the rate of return of lobbying by a university but also at the benefits to a university of being located in a district or state represented by a member of the House or Senate Committee on Appropriations. The results show that universities in areas not represented by a senator on the Appropriations Committee typically spent about $131,410 on lobbying and received earmarks averaging about $1.2 million. For universities in sites represented by a senator on the committee, the average lobbying expenditure was $117,750, and the average earmark was $3.0 million.
Universities in locations not represented by a member of the House Committee on Appropriations spent an average of $125,225 on lobbying and got an average earmark of $1.5 million. Universities in areas represented by a member of the committee spent an average of $128,765 and ended up with earmarks averaging $4.6 million.
"I was shocked at the size of the numbers," Silverman says. "If you believe the numbers, and I do, it certainly suggests that the payoff for lobbying by a school that's located in the right district is quite high."
While this study provides no information about how the earmarked funds are spent, Silverman questions whether this is the most efficient way for the U.S. to be funding its academic research.
"Inside chemical companies, there are always more projects than we can fund and so there is a kind of internal competition to try to come up with the best ones to fund," Silverman explains. "What can often be a bad thing is if some project isn't really considered good enough through the competition process, but a manager with political power finds other money to fund it. That's not good when it happens in companies, and I don't see how it can be good when it happens in government."
Earmarking funds in general has become a big issue in Congress this year due, in part, to a number of lobbying scandals. As a result, appropriations committee leaders have taken steps to try to limit the number of earmarks. It's still too early to tell if these measures will reduce the level of congressionally mandated spending. The House has already added $1.2 billion in earmarks to fiscal 2007 appropriations, according to AAAS. The Senate is expected to add its share in the coming months.
One congressman who has been trying to remove earmarks is Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). Although Flake isn't necessarily anti-earmarks, he does believe the process has gotten out of control.
"It used to be that the process for expending among Congress was authorization, appropriation, and oversight," says Flake's spokesman Matthew Specht. "The congressman feels as if we've cut out the first and last steps and are just appropriating now," he explains.
According to Specht, Flake would like to see more transparency in the earmarking process. "If you removed some of the secrecy of the process, it would go a long way toward cleaning up the system," Specht says.
But simply adding transparency to the process will not limit earmarks, Koizumi says. "Members of Congress are more than happy to take credit for earmarks," he notes.
In the end, Koizumi says that there are often economic and political factors that influence Congress' action. "The science community does sometimes feel that all R&D funding should be decided purely by scientists through internal procedures like peer review," Koizumi says. "In reality, federal R&D funding is never completely about the science," he notes.
Koizumi maintains that the peer review process is the best way to allocate funds, but he believes that earmarks are a legitimate part of the mix. "They fall short of the peer review ideal, and to the extent that they cut into peer review grant funds," they are bad, but there is a balance out there for how R&D funds are distributed that may include earmarks.
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