WASHINGTON. — Washington -- The scientific pork barrel surged to historic proportions this year, reaching $500 million in federal funds stealthily ''earmarked'' by friendly congressmen for building hometown labs -- nearly double the figure of two years ago.
Among universities that routinely rank high in federal research receipts, ''earmarking'' is denounced as a departure from scientific rectitude, a usurpation of the proper order of things. Looked at another way, however, it is a refreshing challenge to a scientific establishment that's often intellectually muscle-bound as well as short-sighted about the regional economic importance of scientific research facilities.
''Earmarked'' money is hijacked from research budgets that have gone through a maze of approvals managed by government research agencies and their friends in academe. Without committee hearings or scientific review, influential congressmen help out their constituents by writing funds for labs into agency budgets, usually at the last minute in the harried appropriations process. A new breed of lobbyists thrives on this work.
Increasingly, congressmen don't wait for their academic constituents to appeal for this kind of help. Instead, in an effort to look attentive to hometown needs, they urge local scientists to come forth with propositions for federal projects.
The aspirations of the scientists easily mesh with the interests of local boosters who value campus labs as an attraction for high-tech industrial firms. Pork is a winner -- politically, scientifically and economically.
Last month, for example, about $100 million that NASA had counted on for various programs was diverted by influential congressmen to projects in their districts. The congressionally favored projects weren't the choices of NASA's managers. On the other hand, they weren't inferior or unworthy. Among them was a center for earth-sciences research in Michigan and a software facility in West Virginia.
In the same fashion, funds belonging to the Environmental Protection Agency were diverted and earmarked for an environmental-research center at Tufts University and wetlands research at the University of Nebraska.
From prestigious rostrums, earmarking is regularly deplored as interference with the orderly planning of scientific activities. On record as opposed to the process is the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and other major scientific organizations. Chairman George E. Brown Jr., D-Calif., of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, a devoted opponent of the scientific pork barrel, says that ''we are now seeing meritorious programs going begging to pay for earmarked projects.''
Mr. Brown volunteers that he is ''not without sin'' when it comes to earmarking for the folks back home, though he notes that he fell short of success in his most notable attempt -- a quest for a saline-water research facility in his home district. Now repentant, he's trying to orchestrate a broad congressional campaign against earmarking, but concedes that the odds for success are not favorable.
The scientific pork barrel thrives on scarcity, and since there isn't enough money to satisfy academe's booming scientific aspirations, its end-run tactics are an inviting alternative. This is especially the case for universities that lack the laboratory facilities to compete for research money -- a Catch-22 situation.
While earmarking is condemned as antithetical to sound scientific planning, there's never been a careful examination of the track records of laboratories that sprang from the scientific pork barrel. With nearly $2 billion appropriated via the earmark route since 1983, the American scientific landscape is covered with many of these facilities. How well do they perform? How do their contributions to research compare with facilities conceived in the officially approved fashion? The science establishment hasn't taken up those questions.
For all we know, the scientific pork barrel may be a fount of valuable science. While denouncing it, the establishment ought to study its performance. If it's really the wastrel that we're told it is, the failings should be quickly evident. If it isn't, then the scientific pork barrel should be recognized as just another useful method for placing scientific bets.
Daniel S. Greenberg publishes the newsletter Science & Government Report.