The $ 1.5 trillion spending bill enacted last month did more than fund US government operations for the next 6 months. It also revived congressional earmarking — the controversial practice of allowing legislators, often at the behest of powerful constituents, to allocate money for specific projects in their district or state that federal agencies did not request.
Earmarks, such as a new bridge or refurbished airport, have traditionally given lawmakers a reason to vote for legislation they might not support, making the wheels of Congress turn more easily. But the US higher education community is deeply divided over the practice.
Many academic institutions have sought — and won — earmarks, seeing them as a quick and easy route to growing their research capacity. At the same time, the higher education organizations to which they belong have long argued that scarce federal dollars should be allocated based on peer review rather than the whims of a single powerful legislator.
A crescendo of costly projects of dubious merit led Congress to earmarking in 2010. But the itch never went away. And last year, the Democratic majority in both chambers of Congress adopted new rules that require earmark requests to be posted online, limit eligibility to nonprofit organizations and projects in which the legislature has no personal or financial interest, and cap the total spending on earmarks at 1% of overall discretionary spending.
Lawmakers welcomed their return, inserting more than 4,000 projects totaling $ 9 billion into this year’s spending bill. Research-related activities comprise about 10% of both totals, according to an analysis by AAAS (which publishes Science). Retiring Senator Richard Shelby (R – AL), a master earmarker who topped this year’s list with some $ 548 million in home-state projects, added a novel twist to the traditional funding for academic bricks and mortar with a $ 50 million endowment at the University of Alabama to attract and retain world-class faculty in the sciences.
The new rules haven’t won over opponents. A spokesperson for the Association of American Universities, for example, says it stands behind a 2018 statement that declares “should Congress restore earmarks, AAU respectfully urges that competitive peer-review continue to be the primary method for allocating federal research funding.”
But AAU and other higher education organizations that oppose earmarks acknowledge their appeal. Jeff Lieberson of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities says, “APLU’s focus is on programmatic requests,” referring to its traditional advocacy for more federal spending on certain activities or for an entire agency rather than for a specific project. “But we understand member institutions [also] may seek congressionally directed spending consistent with the rules of Congress. ”
The new rules prompted at least one legislator to choose her earmarks in a way meant to address some of the flaws in the old system. Earmarks should represent the “highest and best use” of federal dollars, says Representative Chrissy Houlahan (D – PA), who won a seat at Congress in 2018 touting her expertise as a scientist — she’s an industrial engineer with a master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — educator, and serial entrepreneur. To meet that goal, Houlahan created a process that parallels how government agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation assess the merit of grant proposals.
Traditionally, those seeking earmarks might hire a lobbyist to make their case — or go directly to a lawmaker. But Houlahan required any group seeking an earmark to submit a written proposal, complete with a budget justification and outside letters of recommendation. She chose nine community leaders — given anonymity to ensure they would not be the target of lobbying — to score each request using criteria that included the project’s potential benefits for the regional economy and public health and safety, as well as whether it would improve equity.
The panel met several times to discuss proposals in the top half of the rankings, much as an NIH study section would, and agreed that roughly one-third of the 53 requests were worthy of funding. (The losers were given tips on how to improve their proposals and encouraged to reapply next year, again mirroring the federal process.) Houlahan then chose 10 — the maximum number allowed for each House of Representatives — to be considered by congressional appropriators.
Houlahan won approval for all but one project, totaling $ 6.2 million. The biggest payout, at $ 1.5 million, went to Albright College, a small liberal arts school in Reading, Pennsylvania, to expand an after-hours and summer program that draws middle and high school students into science by encouraging them to find real-world applications. for what they’re learning.
“It checked all of her boxes,” says a Houlahan staffer about the program, called the Science Research Institute (SRI). Houlahan was particularly impressed by the program’s track record of serving low-income students, minorities, and those with disabilities, as well as the fact that several older students have developed technologies they are hoping to patent.
Adelle Schade, a high school biology teacher, began SRI in 2014 to supplement in-class science instruction at her school. Operating on a shoestring budget, Schade secured donations from area hospitals and medical supply companies to outfit labs with professional-grade equipment suitable for student research projects.
In 2020, Albright College acquired SRI, which had grown 800% since its inception, and hired Schade as a dean of precollege and summer programs, with the goal of further expanding the program and perhaps exporting the model to other localities.
The institute’s emphasis on tackling real-world problems appealed to Albright’s president, Jacquelyn Fetrow, a biochemist who founded a successful bioinformatics company early in her academic career. Besides getting middle and high school students excited about science, Fetrow believes SRI can help the college produce graduates with the technical skills and business savvy to revitalize a regional economy that has been shedding manufacturing and retail jobs for decades.
Seeking an earmark was the only way a small college that paid teaching over research could attract federal dollars to realize SRI’s potential, she notes. “We can’t follow the traditional route of bringing in a superstar faculty who win hundreds of millions in federal grants,” says Fetrow, who built her career at a large research university before coming to Albright in 2017.
Science doesn’t know of other lawmakers who followed Houlahan’s path in selecting earmarks this year. And those who decry the practice are still assessing its impact on agency budgets. The 1% cap removes some of the foul odor emanating from earmarks, says one higher education lobbyist, before adding, “But we’re going to watch closely to see if they start to get out of control again.”