NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Congress Plays Politics With Research Funds

August 24, 1999

In recent years, members of Congress have quietly been earmarking funds in spending bills for university research in their districts and states -- bypassing reviews by federal institutes. In the process, critics maintain, they are substituting political judgment for scientific review of which projects should qualify for research money.

  • Universities have lobbied for and obtained more than $7 billion directly from Congress since 1980.
  • Earmarked funds in this year's federal budget were a record $797 million.
  • Federal spending on all university-based research this year exceeded $15 billion - - including a variety of military and weapons-related programs beyond the purely scientific endeavors of the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, the two federal institutions which have traditionally handed out grants.
  • Critics point out that the funds are usually inserted in spending bills during closed-door conferences without public debate.

Also, what institution will get the funds is deliberately obscured -- for example, creating a tax break for a university "established on Aug. 6, 1872," without naming the institution. It has taken months for the Chronicle of Higher Education, which tracks academic earmarks, to decode the legislative language used to disguise the appropriations.

Critics report that a disproportionate amount of money flows to universities and colleges in states and Congressional districts represented by lawmakers who are experienced in the appropriations process or who are on appropriations committees.

Former congressman Robert S. Walker (R-Penn.) recalls asking one university official during hearings what he intended to do with the money he was requesting. "He didn't know but said he was sure it would come in handy," Walker said.

Source: Tim Weiner, "Lobbying for Research Money, Colleges Bypass Review Process," New York Times, August 24, 1999.


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