University Polices on Academic Earmarks

May 31st, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Princeton’s Alan B. Krueger had an interesting commentary on academic earmarks in last week’s New York Times. Krueger writes,

“Increasingly, universities are being financed like farmers and military contractors, with legislative earmarks. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, there were 1,964 earmarks to 716 academic institutions costing a total of $2 billion in the 2003 fiscal year, or just over 10 percent of the federal money spent on academic research. From 1996 to 2003, the amount spent on academic earmarks grew at an astounding rate of 31 percent a year, after adjusting for inflation. Earmarks contrast with the way the government finances most university projects, which is through open competitions for grants. In these competitions, agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health review grant applications, often consulting with outside experts, and base awards on the applications’ perceived merit. Earmarks are decided by a political process, without external peer review. As academic earmarks have grown, so have universities’ lobbying expenditures. Spending on lobbying jumped to $62 million in 2003 from $23 million in 1998, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.”

Krueger cites several studies of earmarking. One study looked at the period 1997-1999 and found, not surprisingly, that the presence of a member of congress on a House or Senate appropriations subcommittee is a critical variable in explaining earmarking awards. The study also found that lobbying efforts have a significant monetary return to universities, which explains the growth in university lobbying efforts. Krueger cites another interesting study,

“A. Abigail Payne, an economist at McMaster University in Canada, has studied how earmarks affect the quantity and quality of academic research, inferring quality from the number of times research studies are cited by subsequent studies. She concludes that ‘earmarked funding may increase the quantity of publications but decrease the quality of the publications and the performance of earmarked funding is lower than that from using peer-reviewed funding.’”

Krueger concludes, “Indications are that academic earmarks crowd out spending on competitive peer-reviewed grants, at least in the short run. The competitive merit-based system that has financed most academic research since World War II is probably one reason the United States has been pre-eminent in science and higher education. If academic earmarks continue to grow at an exponential rate, this system could be in jeopardy. Slowing the growth of academic earmarks would require a concerted effort by American universities to shun the practice, or a new consensus in Congress to finance academic research only through the competitive merit-based process. The Association of American Universities, a group of 62 elite research universities, is currently re-examining its position on earmarks, and could send a strong signal by unequivocally rejecting the practice.”

Here at the University of Colorado-Boulder I serve on the chancellor’s advisory committee on federal relations, which includes lobbying and earmarking. I have proposed that Colorado adopt and publicize a general policy of not accepting academic earmarks, with an ability to make exceptions on a case by case basis. I have proposed that we take a close look at such a policy in place at the University of Michigan as a possible model. It’ll be interesting to see how my colleagues respond to such a proposal. The lure of earmarking is strong. But the consequences are significant.

5 Responses to “University Polices on Academic Earmarks”

  1. David Bruggeman Says:

    John Savage’s book on earmarks is oddly absent from Krueger’s commentary.

    Funding Science in America: Congress, Universities and the Academic Pork Barrel. Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    It’s a well researched examination of the rise of academic earmarks. Of particular interest to me was the evidence that earmarks did not favor lower-tier institutions. This complements the studies Kreuger mentions regarding universities’ lobbying efforts.

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  3. Eli Rabett Says:

    Not that I am a friend of earmarks, but you are at the University of Colorado, most of whose budget comes from the state and which was established as a land grant university. It is wrong only to look at the games played on the federal level today. The place I am at is not without sin either

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  5. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Hi Eli- Thanks for your comment. Two quick corrections. First, less than 10% of the University of Colorado’s budget comes from the state. Second, CSU up the road in Fort Collins is the state’s land grant university. But the spirit of you comment I agree with — Colorado gets so much money from the federal government through competitive programs that it should be an easy call to give up earmarks (which obviously won’t be the case everywhere), which are a very small addition to the total in any case.

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  7. Rabett Says:

    Sorry about identifying UC Boulder as a land grant institution. OTOH, the state did buy/reserve the land which is worth quite a bit (much thanks to UC Boulder), but the state did build many of the buildings, etc., which is a good illustration of why chicken egg problems are hard to tear apart.

    More interesting to me is my perception that those most against set asides got theirs earlier. For example, what is the value of Lawrence Berkeley Lab to UC Berkeley? The politics associated with siting various DOD/DOE/NASA/NOAA/NIST labs various places was ferocious. The continuing flow of resources to the associated universities is enormous.

    On the other side, what do you think of EPSCOR

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  9. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Hi Eli- Thanks for the comment. But do note that the policy I am recommending is for the University of Colorado only, it is not a blanket call for a ban on earmarking. EPSCOR is a form of “institutionalized earmarking”, or “capacity buliding” if you like, for which universities like Colorado are ineligible, and properly so. I don’t know a whole lot about EPSCOR, but it seems to me like a good approach to developing expertise.