By John Gilligan
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)
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 benefactorthe
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.
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.
Foundation Biomedical Engineering Research Grants
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:
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: email@example.com
Information Foundation Grants
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:
are reprinted from GrantSelect, the online version of the Grants
Database published by Oryx Press; a one-year subscription to http://www.grantselect.com
costs $1,000. Used with permission from The Oryx Press, 4041 N.
Central Ave., Suite 700, Phoenix, AZ 85012; (800) 279-6799; http://www.oryxpress.com.