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Funding Science in America: Congress, Universities, and the Politics of the Academic Pork Barrel

Taxpayer funding of science in America is pretty meager compared to total federal spending. But legislators and interest groups intent on grabbing tax dollars for themselves don’t care whether the budget item is great or small. In recent years, federal funding for scientific research has become a prime target of the wastrels, and this pottage has since been giving off the distinct aroma of sizzling “pork.”

Pork-barrel science is the subject of James D. Savage’s excellent study of an arcane but important aspect of American academic science. He argues that the trend toward pork both corrupts the merit system for research funding and undermines the rational framework we have employed for the delivery of federal funds to those who do science.

Federal science funding used to be driven by the model of peer review. Congress would appropriate money for general fields of research, but decisions on the precise allocation of those dollars would depend on the evaluations of scientists called on by various agencies. That tax-funded system isn’t perfect, but Savage says it tends to steer funds toward the research proposals that seem to have the greatest likelihood of success. Over the last two decades, however, politicians have been avoiding the peer review process more and more. Instead, much of the federal support for scientific research is now done through “earmarking,” which is to say that money goes to institutions for purposes that may have only a tenuous relationship to science. Earmarking, as Savage puts it, is a “collective action problem” that challenges the “dominant policy regime” of peer/merit review.

Savage brings a wealth of insight from his years near the sausage grinder of science policymaking, having served as a consultant to the Congressional Research Service and to the Office of Technology Assessment. One of the key reasons for the move away from peer/merit review, he observes, was that its results were decidedly unegalitarian. The “old regime” of science funding sent the vast majority of the money to a small set of universities where most of the top scientists worked. In other words, it became obvious to many that a few states and universities were getting most of the resources under peer/merit review, so direct political action to “balance” the ledger was undertaken. Few university officials tried to hold out for meritocracy. Most, as public choice theory would predict, eagerly jumped on the earmarking bandwagon, trying to get as much as possible for their institutions, even though it meant diverting resources from more serious scientific uses.

Savage’s book is a detailed exposition of the incentives for earmarking in our politicized distribution system, the activities of lobbyists in the employ of universities, and the battles within Congress and between Congress and the White House over academic pork. He knows his stuff and he provides useful documentation of his colorful examples, like Senator Ted Stevens’s infamous $40 million earmark for the University of Alaska to find out how to get energy from the aurora borealis! And no legislator could rival fabled pork ranger Robert Byrd of West Virginia, whose huge trough of goodies for his state included $40 million for Wheeling Jesuit College (annual budget: $14 million) for a “classroom of the future.”

Science policy insiders will appreciate this book more than the novice reader, but there is also much that informs at a general level. My criticisms are not of the book’s content, but what it misses. One wishes that the author had ventured to comment on what a “best” arrangement for federal scientific funding might be like so as to eliminate the problems of earmarking, but he does not. Nor does Savage tackle the deeper question of whether government subsidies for scientific research are necessary at all, as Terence Kealy did in his book The Economics of Scientific Research.

Furthermore, Savage does not address how federal funding of science in general, and pork-barrel funding in particular, crowds out or supplants funding from private firms, and he fails to remark on the effects of the politicization of public health, with its “disease of the decade” phenomenon. The heavy subsidization of AIDS research, for example, redirects the efforts of medical researchers away from less “popular” but more deadly pathologies.

Those are sins of omission, however, in what must be described as a welcome critique of the hazards of the growing entanglement of academic science and politics, and the growing dependency of America’s nominally independent centers of wisdom on the largess of the federal government. Perhaps we could say that they suffer from “trichinosis of the spirit.”

Jack Sommer is Knight Distinguished Professor of Public Policy, University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

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