Roll Out the Pork Barrel


March 03, 1992|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- To a chorus of denunciations from the chieftains of the research establishment, the scientific pork barrel rolled last year on Capitol Hill to a record high of 492 projects billed at $810 million.

It's rolling again this year, and, egged on by distressed academicians, the White House and various legislators, small and mighty, have vowed countermeasures. Poised for the task, among others, is a congressional coalition under the banner of ''Porkbusters.''

But since money is the goal in science's tango with government, why the consternation?

The reason is that the pork-barrel route for laboratories and research eludes the control of an elaborate system that has concentrated federal science money in relatively few parts of this big country. Pork-barrel appropriations, also referred to as ''earmarks,'' are the product of an alternative method of dishing out federal money for research.

The political zest for another way naturally arises from the striking maldistribution of federal research funds in an era in which thriving laboratories often serve as magnets for industry and business. The imbalances show up clearly in the latest numbers reported by the National Science Foundation, keeper of research statistics.

Five states accounted for nearly half of the $140 billion spent on research and development in 1989 -- California, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey and New York. Approximately 50 percent of the money came from federal agencies, the rest from industry, reflecting the fact that government and industrial R&D tend to cluster.

Two thirds of national R&D spending is concentrated in those states plus five others: Illinois, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas. The top 10 spots have gone unchanged since at least 1975. The main reason for the stability is that in the orthodox system, federal R&D money is awarded competitively -- which means that those already equipped to do research have a big edge over those trying to break into the business.

Federal science money for universities is only a small slice of the grand national total of R&D spending, about $14 billion in 1989. But it's influential money, since it's the mainstay of basic research, which is especially prestigious in the scientific culture. And here, too, the distribution of funds is tightly concentrated.

Of the nation's 3,400 institutions of higher learning, perhaps 300 take part in serious scientific research, if only in one department on campus.

In 1989, 20 universities received 32 percent of Washington's funds for academic science; 50 universities accounted for 58 percent, and the top 100 took 82 percent of the science funds. Some of these academic winners play both sides of the street, winning funds in the competitive system, while also prodding their congressmen for special appropriations.

With the connivance of cooperative chairmen, pork-barrel appropriations are usually slipped into money bills without having gone through committee hearings. They also do not have the collaboration, or even the knowledge, of the research agencies that will have to put up the money.

The standard complaint is that they're rogue appropriations, dished up to satisfy a particular locality or university, without having undergone ''peer'' review, the sacred sifting process of the scientific establishment. Furthermore, the out- raged critics contend, projects financed by earmarks disrupt scientific planning and priorities and consume funds that were carefully allotted to other projects.

Some earmarks have been ridiculed as absurd, among them a crackpot, multi-million-dollar scheme in Alaska to tap power from aurora borealis. But, in fact, most pork-barrel appropriations for research arise from qualified professional aspirations to build a laboratory that will enable a school to compete for grant money.

Quite a few of today's highly regarded research centers were long ago conceived in the pork barrel. And quite a few wastrel projects in the federal research inventory, including the faltering multi-billion-dollar Strategic Defense Initiative, are plastered with approving peer-review reports.

Accounting for only 6 or 7 percent of today's federal support for serious research, pork-barrel science is no menace to the established system. It's another way of financing science -- and often with good results.

Daniel S. Greenberg publishes the newsletter Science & Government Report.

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