Millions in Research Dollars Earmarked for 'Academic Pork'

December 06, 1992|By ROBERT L. PARK

Nestled among the Pocono Mountains, tiny Marywood College in Scranton, Pa., would seem to be a peaceful refuge from worldly strife. But the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who run Marywood, are in fact military contractors; the 1992 Defense Appropriation Act earmarked $10 million in military research funds for the sisters.

The year before, Scranton University, an obscure Jesuit school that does not offer a doctorate degree, was also awarded $10 million in Department of Defense research funds.

Yet the Department of Defense had not requested funds for either school; no proposals were submitted to government agencies; there was no evaluation by impartial experts; the projects were not debated by Congress. Indeed, neither project appeared in the separate defense appropriations measures passed by the House and Senate.

Marywood College and Scranton University owe their good fortune to the fact that Rep. Joseph McDade, R-Pa., whose district includes Scranton, is the ranking minority member of the House Appropriations Committee.

The earmarks were inserted into defense spending bills in the dead of night during the final stages of the appropriation process. Last month, the people of the 10th District rewarded Mr. McDade with his 15th term in the House. The voters deplore government waste -- in other districts.

Mr. McDade was not alone in using his position on an appropriations committee to bestow blessings on academic +V institutions in his district. Nearly $1 billion dollars will be spent this year on so-called "academic pork," most of it in units of $10 million. Virtually all of it will go to institutions in the home states or districts of members of the appropriations committees.

The practice of earmarking research funds for specific colleges and universities began in 1982, when $11 million was divided between Columbia University and Catholic University of America. The amount of academic pork in the budget has grown exponentially since then, with a doubling rate of about two years. At this rate, academic pork would consume the entire research budget of the United States before the turn of the century.

Defenders of academic earmarks claim the competitive process by which research grants are normally awarded discriminates against smaller institutions. The scientific experts who review the proposals, they complain, favor a few major research universities.

Their alternative is to simply shovel the money to institutions in the home states of members of the appropriations committees -- without any review. With no review process to evaluate the merit of the science, pork-barrel research has produced some howlers.

Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, the ranking minority member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, has earmarked tens of millions of dollars for a project at the University of Alaska that he says could lead to a way to tap the energy of the aurora borealis -- the "northern lights" -- produced by the interaction of the solar wind with the Earth's magnetic field. There is enough energy in the aurora, Mr. Stevens points out, to supply the energy needs of North America -- and it's right there over Fairbanks! Getting it down to Earth is another matter. To tap that energy would require an antenna stretched between Mount McKinley and Mount Fuji.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been squandered on earmarked projects with impressive-sounding titles in the past decade; little endures beyond bricks and mortar. It began in 1982 with a Vitreous Materials Laboratory at Catholic University and a National Center of Chemistry Research at Columbia.

Buildings were constructed, but no vitreous materials research was ever conducted at Catholic, and nothing that could be identified as a National Center of Chemistry Research ever appeared at Columbia. It is a story that is repeated over and over.

Other members of Congress have grown increasingly irritated at the arrogance of the appropriators. In the final weeks before the 102nd Congress adjourned, Rep. George Brown, D-Calif., led a fight to strip $95 million in academic pork from the energy appropriation bill. It had been earmarked for 10 projects distributed among the most influential members of the Senate and House appropriations committees.

Mr. Brown's amendment to remove the earmarks was approved 250-104; he seemed to have scored a rare victory over government waste. But two weeks later, one day before adjournment, the 10 projects miraculously reappeared in the defense appropriation bill, protected by a rule that prevented amendment.

West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd, chairman of the Senate Appropriation Committee, crowed, "It's not pork, it's infrastructure!"

Robert Park is a professor of physics at the University of Maryland College Park and director of the Washington office of the American Physical Society. He wrote this article for Newsday.

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