Few people might know it, but Cornell University is at the epicenter of cutting-edge research into the nuances of grape-growing — and a $1.9 million federal grant this year will help further bolster its fruit-related efforts. For that, scientists at the Center for Grape Genetics Research know whom to credit.
“We’re extremely thankful,” the school’s grape czar said recently, “to our congressmen.”
He was not alone: Federal earmarks to universities have quadrupled over the last decade to more than $2 billion this year, according to a report released this week. Yet nary a dollar was appropriated to Yale — which stays away from the pork-barrel buffet as a matter of principle, University officials insist.
But at schools that do not enjoy Yale’s billions of dollars in endowment spoils, and even at some of its Ivy League peers, earmarks are a healthy source of funding. Legislators funneled more than 2,300 pet projects to 900 colleges and universities this year, funding thousands of initiatives like alligator research, plant cloning and the development of salmon-based baby food, according to the report, published in this week’s edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Overall, the earmarked projects rang up what some critics called an appalling total cost to taxpayers: at least $2.25 billion, up from $528 million a decade ago.
“It’s really a shame,” University President Richard Levin said. “It’s the wrong way to allocate funds to universities. It should be, to the maximum extent possible, all by competition with peer review.”
The earmarks — small appropriations for home-district projects that are often tucked into epic-length spending bills — only average a few million dollars per institution, but they are the subject of a good deal of controversy. Federal funding for academic research is typically disbursed through a competitive process, in which researchers vie for dollars based on the merits of their work as judged by critical peer reviews. Earmarked projects, on the other hand, are not subject to any such review.
“We’re picking grants based on their political muscle, and not based on their merit,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of the non-partisan watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
“There’s become a feeding frenzy among universities to capture this funding,” Ellis said. “They recognize they can talk out of one side of their mouth — saying that this isn’t the right thing to do — but out of the other side of their mouths they’re asking their individual lawmakers to bring back as many earmarks as possible.”
The University is not among them. Yale is only one of a limited number of universities that formally refuse earmarked dollars — because of principle, officials said, not to mention confidence in its own scientists to obtain funding through competitive processes.
“Yale has long maintained that federal funds for university research should be awarded on the merit of the proposed project, as judged through peer review,” explained Richard Jacob, Yale’s associate vice president for federal relations. “Yale believes this is the best way to maximize the pace of discovery and, in turn, the return on the public investment in university research and scholarship.”
But other schools — which, granted, do not have $22.5 billion endowments to fall back on — tend not to take such strict positions, and members of Congress enjoy touting the grants they regularly secure for pet projects at their local universities.
Elsewhere in the Ivy League, only one school — Princeton — did not receive any earmarks this year, according to the Chronicle’s study.
A Princeton spokeswoman did not return a request for comment on Tuesday.
But the other six schools in the Ancient Eight pocketed approximately $21 million for nearly three dozen projects ranging from researching disease in apple trees to buying medical equipment, according to a News estimate based on Congressional appropriations.
For its grape-growing endeavors and 18 other projects, Cornell received an Ivy-leading $10.7 million this year, according to the News’ estimate. A spokeswoman for the university did not reply to written questions Tuesday, but earlier this winter, school officials made no secret about their pork-barrel procurements.
“We’re extremely thankful to our congressmen … who support agriculture in New York State and agriculture research,” Thomas Burr, director of Cornell’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, said in January, according to the Cornell Daily Sun.
The $1.88 million earmark will go toward a $20 million project to build a headquarters for the grape-research center, Burr said.
“We still have quite a ways to go, but I’m very pleased we’re moving ahead,” the Sun quoted him as saying.
Cornell, meanwhile, was only in the middle of the pack as far as earmark-pocketing schools are concerned. The two schools that received the most earmarked dollars this year, Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi, received a combined $81 million in pork-barrel spending, much of it thanks to Senator Thad Cochran, Republican of Mississippi and the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
A Mississippi State vice president was quoted in this week’s report defending the earmarks by noting that “we’re in a poor state.” Or, as a spokesman for Cochran put it in an interview with The New York Times, “If the federal government is going to explore particular research initiatives, why shouldn’t small portions of that research be done in Mississippi, a place where it can both serve the national interest and also generate real opportunity where little may have existed before?”
Not all take this view.
“We do continue to express our concern about that earmarking that has an impact on peer-reviewed science,” said Barry Toiv, a vice president at the Association of American Universities, a consortium of 62 research universities.
But behind the scenes, it is not that clear-cut. At AAU meetings, the Chronicle quoted an unnamed college president saying, university officials often gripe about how pork-barrel appropriations are taking dollars away from merit-based awards.
“And then,” the president said, “they go home and call up their congressman to ask for an earmark.”
Meanwhile, conventional federal grants for peer-reviewed projects are becoming increasingly difficult to win: The budgets of the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation have not kept pace with inflation since 2003, and this year, the agencies will sign off on one in five grant applications, down from one in three less than a decade ago, according to the Chronicle.
Levin, an economist who has written about how different countries award research grants to universities, said the United States’ system of competitive, merit-based grants has clearly helped advance science in this country in a manner not seen in other parts of the world where politics, not academic potential, drive grant appropriations.
“We have a great system in the United States … that really does get the money to the most deserving — it’s so clear,” Levin said. “With Congressional earmarking, the more we do that, the more we look like the other countries where decisions are politically determined.”
The Chronicle’s report included three earmarks it indicated were received by Yale, but the News examined each and determined they were not described accurately. Two of the earmarks — for ovarian-cancer prevention and a disaster-response initiative — are for programs not at the University but at Yale-New Haven Hospital, said a hospital spokesman, Rob Hutchison.
The third, for research into Lyme disease, is for a long-standing, peer-reviewed study commissioned competitively and not one merely earmarked to Yale, said the researcher leading it, professor of Epidemiology Durland Fish.
Elsewhere in Connecticut, however, the earmarks flowed freely. Universities in the state received 21 earmarks, including $492,000 for solar panels at the University of Hartford and $297,000 to Southern Connecticut State University to study the viability of oyster fisheries.
Pork-barrel spending has engendered much controversy even when it does not involve academics. The issue grabbed headlines in 2005 because of Senator Ted Stevens’ request for more than $200 million in pork-barrel appropriation to help build a so-called “bridge to nowhere” leading to a small island, population 50, in his home state of Alaska.
Stevens lost that fight, but he has not conceded the war: He sponsored an $818,000 earmark to the University of Alaska Fairbanks for the research into salmon-based baby food.
This year’s Democratic presidential candidates also sent their home universities earmarked dollars; Sen. Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 snared $70.1 million for 21 projects at 14 schools, while Sen. Barack Obama earmarked $19.2 million for seven universities.
Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee and a longtime critic of earmarks, did not sponsor any, according to the Chronicle.
McCain has vowed to completely eliminate earmarks if he is elected president, but that could be a tough sell to his former Congressional colleagues. A bill that would have placed a one-year moratorium on pork-barrel spending, backed by all three presidential hopefuls, failed to pass the Senate this month, going down by a 71-29 vote.