Academic pork

Outside editorial

Posted: Thursday, August 16, 2001

The following editorial appeared in today's Washington Post:

The bestowers and the gobblers of academic pork sometimes defend the practice on grounds that the goodies amount to very little. Next to the billions that the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation award every year to peer-reviewed research, they ask, what's the harm in a few million, or a few tens of millions, going directly to colleges or universities through the good offices of a friendly appropriations chairman? But grants awarded outside the rigorous peer review process are no longer a tiny footnote to the budget. This year they reached a whopping $1.67 billion - more than double the total two years ago and no longer dwarfed by the $12 billion peer-reviewed science budget.

The upward spiral should be no surprise. Once the practice of bypassing peer review and going to one's congressman for research funds took hold in the 1980s - speeded by lobbyists who made the transaction their speciality - it was inevitable that its popularity would grow. Universities that didn't do well in the competition for peer-reviewed money quickly figured out that this way was easier; never mind that the money would be spent without systematic oversight or follow-up, or that large dollops of it went to institutions without the facilities to do the research they promised. And prestigious universities that do just fine getting peer-reviewed grants soon gave up initial efforts to boycott the earmark game and joined in (though this year they have again been making noises opposing it). Not only the dollar amount but also the number of earmarks and the number of institutions getting them has risen steeply under this me-too pressure. The Chronicle of Higher Education, which tracks the earmarking totals every year, reported that 528 institutions got earmarked grants - up 37 percent from 2000. And 13 of the 25 top porkers were also in the top 100 recipients of peer-reviewed funds.

This kind of spending eats away at the legitimacy of the research enterprise and ultimately at the resources available to it. The Chronicle reports that NASA had to cut its life sciences research budget by 5 percent across the board this year to accommodate the earmarks imposed on it by Congress. The surplus-happy, anything-goes atmosphere in which the 2001 budget was compiled no doubt encouraged this stampede, but budget realities this year are a good deal different. A failure to rein in earmarks now could create real trouble for the legitimate scientific research that is one of this country's great strengths.

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