We're resigned to seeing Congress vote money for pork-barrel projects of all kinds: roads, dams, post offices, and military construction projects in the districts of influential legislators. This kind of vote-buying and pandering to special interests may disgust us, but it no longer shocks us.
Over the last six years, without any fanfare and with very little public notice, Congress has extended pork-barrel politics to a new domain: science. Universities have discovered that lobbying can be as profitable for them as it is for public-works contractors. With help from the right committee members, colleges that can't compete for merit-based research funds can reap millions in "earmarked" appropriations.
Some highlights of the last few years:
• By congressional mandate, the Interior Department will hand Brandeis University $3 million this year for a bioscience center.
• Last year's budget ordered the Energy Department to give $15 million to Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh, $12.7 million to the Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York City, and $7.5 million to the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey.
• The 1987 Continuing Resolution included $60,000 for a Belgian Endive Research Center at the University of Massachusetts.
• In 1985, Rep. Wes Watkins (D–Okla.) and Sen. Alfonse d'Amato (R–N.Y.) directed $1 million each in Defense Department funds to their respective alma maters, Oklahoma State and Syracuse.
• That same year, Congress ordered the Department of Energy to spend $56.5 million for specific projects at nine universities.
• In 1984, House appropriations subcommittee chairman Sidney Yates (D–Ill.) slipped a provision into an appropriations bill to funnel $26 million for a laboratory to Northwestern University, which is in his district.
Perhaps the greatest example of pork-barrel science is the Department of Energy's Superconducting Supercollider (SSC), which will be built at Waxahachie, Texas. The purpose of the SSC is pure science—to probe the interior of the atom—but the debate surrounding it has been pure politics.
For four years, state governments lobbied to get the SSC located on their turf. At stake were 4,500 jobs during construction and an initial operating staff of 3,000, growing to 6,000 in 10 years. During the debate over whether to go ahead with the $6-billion construction project, Rep. Don Ritter (R–Pa.), who has a science Ph.D. from MIT, complained that none of the lobbyists offered any testimony on the technical need for the SSC. They talked only about why it should be in their state. Nobody paid much attention to the many scientists who argued that the SSC shouldn't be built at all.
Pork-barrel science threatens both to weaken American research and to increase government spending. When it displaces funding based on merit with funding based on political pull, it undermines scientific excellence. When it doesn't, it simply raises the total level of spending.
Before 1983, all government research funds were allocated through a "peer review" process similar to the way scientific journals decide what to publish. Program managers in the National Science Foundation, the Defense Department, and other agencies had each grant proposal reviewed by researchers working in the same area. Top researchers got the money without regard to the influence of their local congressman—or even the prestige or political clout of their university. The scientific community as a whole played a major role in deciding which research to support and which not, by judging the merit of individual proposals. Money went to the researchers whose proposals satisfied their peers.
Competition among agencies to attract good proposals further restrained political favoritism. If an agency got a reputation for favoritism, top researchers would simply submit their proposals elsewhere. Thanks to this competition, no agency tried to cement its position with Congress by distributing the money the way the Agriculture Department does: geographically, based on the power of the representatives and senators on the various appropriations committees. (Although the Agriculture Department spends $560 million a year to fund research, much of the good agricultural work done today is paid for by seed, fertilizer, and farm-implement companies or by state governments through agricultural schools. In the early 1970s, the National Academy of Sciences reviewed the Agriculture Department's research programs and found them to be inefficient and of very low quality.)
Lawmakers, of course, have every incentive to make their constituents happy by funneling research money to institutions in their districts. Only recently, however, have universities pressured their representatives to do them such favors. This process began in 1983, when a Washington lobbying firm, Cassidy and Associates, succeeded in getting direct appropriations for laboratories at Columbia University and at Catholic University. Congress simply directed the Department of Energy to spend the money. The department hadn't asked for the appropriation, and Congress didn't hold any hearings on the matter.
Other universities soon hired lobbyists to get similar goodies for them. The lobbyists delivered. In 1984, Congress made direct appropriations for laboratories at Florida State, Boston University, University of Oregon, Oregon Health Sciences University, University of New Hampshire, Boston College, and Georgetown University, plus follow-up grants to Columbia and Catholic University.
Despite vociferous protests from the scientific community, the process continues—even though Congress seemingly resolved to end it. In 1985, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved nine direct appropriations but stated in its report that "the Committee will not consider any future requests to earmark DOD research and development funds for specific research projects that have not gone through competitive, merit review processes without specific authorization." The commitment didn't last long. On the very next page of that report, the committee added a project for Arizona State.
In June 1986, Sen. John Danforth (R–Mo.) tried to amend a supplemental appropriations bill to remove pork-barrel research items. The debate on Danforth's amendment revealed how Congress felt about such appropriations and the standard peer-review process. "When did we agree that the peers would cut the melon or decide who would get this money?" asked then-Sen. Russell Long (D–La.), who obviously considered the money not a way to buy good research but simply a gift. In the 1984 Deficit Reduction Act, replied Danforth, Congress had declared that government grants should be awarded competitively; in the case of basic research, that meant peer review. Asked Long, "Am I to understand that…Congress said we are not going to have any say about who gets this money?" Then-Sen. Lowell Weicker (R–Conn.) added, revealingly, that if individual senators were not permitted "to make a case for circumstances within the state, then there is not much point in having an appropriations committee or indeed to act as a U.S. Senator."
Long's and Weicker's arguments carried the day, and Danforth's amendment went down on a 56-42 vote. A similar fight, with similar results, took place in the House a month later. "We are being asked for Congress to delegate its responsibility to those peers to handle most of the research money in this country," argued Rep. Tom Bevill (D–Ala.). "Let us let the Congress handle a little of the money."
A few months earlier, three staff members of Cassidy and Associates had made contributions of $3,000 to Bevill. His committee had proceeded to award money to four universities represented by that firm, according to a report in The Scientist, a national newspaper for scientific professionals. It would be sheer speculation, of course, to postulate a connection between the two events. Nevertheless, they fit the traditional pattern of pork-barrel politics. A few thousand dollars invested in campaign contributions return millions of dollars in appropriations. No private-sector investment can match that rate of return.
Moreover the contributions to Bevill were not unique. Federal Election Commission records show that Cassidy and Associates employees contributed over $5,500 to House Speaker Jim Wright in 1985. At that time, Wright was helping to obtain an earmarked appropriation for Boston University, another client of Cassidy and Associates.
Some lawmakers worry about undue pressure to allocate money directly to universities. Last year, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sam Nunn (D–Ga.) succeeded in stripping $46 million in earmarked grants from a defense appropriations bill. "I have had numerous schools in my own state ask the Senate Armed Services Committee to designate certain set-asides for their school. If we accept the earmarking…the pressures on every Senator to take care of his state's universities will be enormous," he said during the debate. "Is that what we want? To pit our schools against one another at the pork barrel?"
But it's unlikely that Nunn's success marks any real turning point. Apparently, some Armed Services Committee members went along with his amendment only because they were miffed that they hadn't had the chance to approve the spending themselves; the bill had gone through the Appropriations Committee. "Next year, the lobbyists will probably just go through both committees," a Senate aide told National Journal, which noted that only unauthorized projects were removed from the bill while other pork-barrel grants stayed in.
Now that Congress has decided that fiber optics, integrated circuits, and supercomputers have the same status as military bases, dams, and post offices, there is no going back. We cannot depend upon the universities themselves to reject pork-barrel funds. No matter how strongly a university president believes in peer review and the allocation of research money on merit alone, he can't afford to turn it down while other universities line up at the federal trough. His board of trustees will replace him if he doesn't get his "fair share" of the loot. As Jerry Rochswalb, government relations director for the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges, put it, "One of these days, the chairman of the board of trustees will say to him [the university president], 'Hey, who made you a saint?'"
Only one university has had the grace to turn down a direct appropriation. In 1986, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Mark Hatfield (R–Ore.) tried to give Cornell University $10 million for a supercomputer—to be built by Floating System, of Beaverton, Oregon. In this case, Hatfield was trying to help his constituents sell a computer, rather than trying to help a university in his own state. Cornell President Frank Rhodes announced the school would not take money unless it was awarded as the result of competition on merit alone.
Most universities, however, have taken the attitude of Charles Coffin, director of government relations at Northwestern: "I'm not going to quarrel with both houses of Congress." In fact, the scientific community is now talking of accommodating itself to the process, rather than reversing it. The "Langenberg Committee," representing six associations of universities and chaired by Donald Langenberg, Chancellor of the University of Illinois at Chicago, recommended that a separate fund be established to pay for laboratories and equipment, as opposed to research, and that a formula be developed to provide preferential treatment for universities that haven't received much federal money in the past. This is the first step toward the complete politicization of research funding, in which the objective is to give everyone a "fair share."
Already, the Defense Department's University Research Initiative—intended to foster research related to defense needs—has been almost completely taken over by geographically based distribution. In addition, both the 1988 trade bill and the fiscal 1989 authorizations for the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation included funds for laboratory facilities with set-asides for "have not" universities—those that have not received their "fair share" of merit-based awards in the past.
For a whole generation, competition among agencies saved us from favoritism and pork-barrel funding of research, with the stagnation they would inevitably have brought. Now that Congress has voted resoundingly to put research into the pork barrel, the universities themselves are under pressure to get research money through politics instead of through merit. Competition among research funding agencies will now switch from assuring researchers of individual fairness to assuring Congress of "fairness" in geographic distribution of money—making sure each corner of the country gets its hunk of the science pie.
There is a very high risk that research in this country has reached its peak and will now start a downhill slide. As Frank Press, president of the National Academy of Sciences, wrote in 1984, pork-barrel science threatens to undermine "the evaluation and review system that has been responsible for the great strength of American science.…it is in the long-term interest of a strong American science to use procedures that we all respect, and to resist special-interest political favoritism."
We can probably tolerate the waste of another $100 million a year in pork-barrel spending. That's less than 50 cents a year from each of us. What we can't tolerate is the destruction and corruption of our research enterprise. It's not just a matter of Nobel Prizes, and the prestige which comes with them. Our national defense, our health, and our economic growth in a highly competitive world depend on good scientific and technological research.
But the slide down this route was inevitable. It's time to rethink the decision we as a nation made in 1945: that research money should come primarily from the federal government. By an accident of history we escaped the predictable consequences of that decision—favoritism, pork-barrel spending, and stagnation. Our good luck has run out. We can't escape those consequences any longer. We need to find other ways to support good basic research, just as we have managed to find other ways to support good agricultural research.
Should we have tax credits? Should taxpayers be allowed to deduct research contributions as they now deduct charitable contributions? Do we need research foundations for astronomy, physics, chemistry, as we now have them for cancer and heart disease? Or is there some better way? The answers aren't clear yet. We need answers, though, and we need them soon if we are to preserve the research capability we built up over the past generation.
Joseph P. Martino is a senior research scientist at the University of Dayton Research Institute.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Political Science".