The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"We have the power to do any damn fool thing we want to, and we seem to do it about every ten minutes." ....  ...J. William Fulbright, U.S. Senator (1945-1974) speaking about the Senate.

Commentary of the Day - December 29, 2002:  Academic Pork - $1.8 Billion and Rising.

According to a September 27, 2002 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Jeffrey Brainard, the level of pork-barrel spending on academic projects reached $1.837 billion in the 2002-2003 federal budget.  This represents a 9.2% increase over the previous fiscal year, and a 500% increase since 1989.  The $1.837 billion figure refers to Congressional "earmarks", or direct grants of federal funds to academic institutions across the country, as opposed to federal funds for research and educational projects that are granted through the normal, competitive process of peer-review.

When we last addressed the issue of academic pork in October of 2000 the level of academic pork was slightly over one billion dollars.  Readers who are not familiar with the history of academic pork might want to take a quick look at that article.  Proponents of these Congressional earmarks often argue that they help to level the playing field, because peer-review panels often are dominated by researchers from a relatively small group of highly prestigious institutions.  However, as Brainard's Chronicle piece notes, success in obtaining academic pork depends greatly on the influence of a well-connected member of congress or senator who is willing to push the project on behalf of a college or university in his or her district or state.

Here at Krispy Kreme U. our administration has been attempting to obtain a Congressional earmark to aid our Institute of Gerontology for the past few years.  No doubt, our Institute of Gerontology does worthwhile work; however, the IP has heard of no good reason (other than need) for the Institute to be seeking funds outside the normal peer-review channels.  Indeed, this may be an uphill battle in any case, because Krispy Kreme U. has the misfortune (or fortune depending on your point-of-view) of being located in the district of Congressman Ed Royce, who fancies himself a "pork buster".  Congressman Royce has sponsored or co-sponsored legislation to abolish the Department of Commerce and the Department of Energy, as well as to abolish the Advanced Technology Program.  This hardly sounds like the kind of guy whose going to spend a lot of effort to direct a million or so of taxpayer dollars to the Institute of Gerontology at Cal State Fullerton, even though he's an alumnus of the institution.

But that may be neither here nor there.  The IP's principal objection to the use of federal earmarks for funding projects in academia is that most of the projects either are of little or no national interest, or should have been proposed through the normal peer-review process.  Some examples from right here in California include: a $2,000,000 grant from the Department of Transportation to Cal Poly Pomona to rebuild campus roads to accommodate buses, which were in jeopardy of being rerouted off campus; an $800,000 grant from the Department of Education to support distance education projects at Los Angeles Harbor Community College; a $200,000 grant to Cal State Monterey Bay to support student services; a $12.8 million grant to Cal State San Bernardino from the Department of Defense to create a distance-learning center that can provide education and training in disciplines of interest to the department; grants of $7.7 million, $9.0 million and $8.5 million to Loma Linda University from the Department of Defense for various aspects of medical research.

Examples abound from other states with entrenched senators and House members.  For example, in West Virginia -- the home state of Sen. Richard C. Byrd -- Appalachian Bible College was awarded  $1.85 million in earmarks from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to construct a student center, library, and health center, and Marshall University received a $10.4 million earmark from the Department of Health and Human Services to construct a biotechnology center.

The IP actually has driven some of those roads over at Cal Poly Pomona.  They might not be the greatest, but the buses that he saw had no difficulty navigating them.  Several of the projects mentioned, which are typical of a host of other projects funded by earmarks, are just like that road boondoggle over at Cal Poly Pomona.  They represent strictly local problems that should be funded locally.  The health related projects at Loma Linda University have a much more direct connection to the national welfare; and, the medical school at Loma Linda is well-regarded.  But, it is by no means obvious that Loma Linda would be the first choice among the nation's medical schools to carry out this research.

One also might argue that there are national interests at stake in the earmarked projects funded through the Department of Defense, and in some cases the the issues are pressing enough to bypass the normal process of reviewing bids or proposals.  The IP suspects that most of those projects aren't that urgent.  Even though the DOD does not have a stellar reputation for the efficacy of its procurement processes, the IP also suspects that the taxpayers would have gotten a better deal in most cases if the projects had been sent out for bids or for proposals.

There are obvious weaknesses in the peer-review process.  It is true that too often folks from the major research universities dominate the review panels, and occasionally they recommend some less than worthy projects for funding.  But aggressive work by agency program officers can reduce that effect.  In any case the IP is of the opinion that the majority of earmarks associated with academic pork are just as much a "fleecing" of the taxpayer as the more common highway and bridge projects that are funded from the pork barrel.


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© 2002 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.