Prism Magazine September 2001



Teaching Toolbox
Research - Earmarking for Engineering Research

- By John Gilligan

“Earmarks” are directives from congress that give money to certain schools. Unlike peer review funding that comes through agencies such as the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation after careful scrutiny of a school's research, congressional earmarks are influenced by other factors. Critics of earmarking say that politicians earmark money to get votes, and that the peer review process is a better way to distribute money. Proponents of earmarking say that smaller schools would never be able to compete for funding without earmarking. Universities respond by hiring lobbyists, who try to convince members of Congress to give money to their universities.

Out of a total of about $20 billion in research funding from all federal sources, as much as $2 billion may have been earmarked from Congress for research at universities this last fiscal year.

This is a staggering amount of money, with some individual universities receiving in excess of $300 million over the last 15 years. The list of universities receiving earmarking easily exceeds 100 schools, including top research institutions. (see “Playing the Game” in the March 2001 Prism)

Are engineering colleges and departments receiving their fair share of the spoils? I do not know of any official statistics on this, but because earmarking originates from congressional subcommittees, we do know that the Joint Defense Appropriations Subcommittee has targeted about 29 percent of the total earmarked funds ($5.1 billion over 1980 to 1996) with another 17 percent from the Energy and Water Joint Appropriations Subcommittee. Since engineering research is heavily supported by the Department of Defense and other agencies overseen by these subcommittees, we could conclude that engineering departments should be receiving a fair share of this money. The other argument that is typically used when justifying earmarking is that the funds will generate economic development in individual states. Indeed, this is the same argument used to justify the creation of new colleges of engineering, or significant increases for budgets in existing colleges, in those same states.

For all the ethical and moral arguments against accepting federal earmarked funds for research, I suggest this source of funding should be viewed as “gift” money from a wealthy and powerful benefactor—the U.S. government. Receiving this money does not automatically increase the research reputation or prestige of a university faculty. In his 1999 book, Funding Science in America, James Savage found that funding programs through earmarking rather than money earned through peer review made little difference to the long-term improvement in research rankings. But like all properly used gift money, the objective should be to supplement credible and peer-reviewed scientific and engineering research projects and to leverage additional support from states, industry and other donors.

I also believe there are at least two important caveats associated with accepting earmarked funds. First, there should be no conflicts of interest generated or "promises made" in conjunction with the earmarking. In the world of politics this might seem to be an impossible requirement. However, we require such stipulations when large cash gifts are made to our universities to eliminate research endorsement of products or companies. Promises might also include endorsements of candidates or a party. The second caveat occurs when earmarking undermines or supplants federal agency control of the research process. Federal agencies that fund universities work very hard to uphold the peer review process and to maintain agency priorities. If an outside congressional committee forces the agency to reach different conclusions, then the credibility of the agency is compromised and morale declines within the agency. Worse yet, if the earmarks come as a directive from Congress with no new money, then the agency must carve the earmark out of existing program money. Therefore, when asking for earmarks, make sure that the projects are consistent with agency priorities and come with "new" money, otherwise you may be dealing with a very antagonistic federal agency for many years to come.

All of the above may not be as much of an issue in the future as federal budget surpluses decrease with tax cuts. Congress may have its hands full just balancing the budget. Then again, there may be worthy scientific and engineering research projects that agencies are unable to fund that certain appropriation subcommittee chairs will find quite appealing for political reasons.

John Gilligan is associate dean for research and graduate programs at North Carolina State University and a member of the Board of Directors of the ASEE Engineering Research Council.


Whitaker Foundation Biomedical Engineering Research Grants
Number: 85
Amount: up to $240,000 for three years
Deadline: Dec 1; Feb 1
Description: Projects must involve the advancement or innovative use of engineering techniques as they apply to medical problems.
Contact: Wolf von Maltzahn (703) 528-2430; fax (703) 528-2431; e-mail:

Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Fellowship Program
Number: about 40
Amount: up to $45,000
Deadline: October 15
Description: For postdoctoral scientists at any level in their careers. Office or studio space, auditing privileges, and access to libraries and other resources of Harvard University are provided.
Contact: Fellowship Administrator (617) 495-8212; fax (617) 495- 8136; e-mail:

Engineering Information Foundation Grants
Amount: $5,000-$75,000
Deadline: Sep 30; Feb 28; Jun 30
Description: For educational and research programs that advance the availability and use of published
information related to engineering and applied technologies, programs conducted by engineering educators that encourage girls and women to consider careers in engineering, and projects that improve access to engineering information for students and faculty of education institutions in developing countries.
Contact: Thomas Buckman (212) 579-7596; fax (212) 579-7517; e-mail:

Grant profiles are reprinted from GrantSelect, the online version of the Grants Database published by Oryx Press; a one-year subscription to costs $1,000. Used with permission from The Oryx Press, 4041 N. Central Ave., Suite 700, Phoenix, AZ 85012; (800) 279-6799;