How about a kind word for the scientific pork barrel, Congress's own direct-delivery system for laboratories and research projects back home? It's despised by the scientific establishment and government research agencies as undercutting their control over government money for research.
In the pork system, stealthy members of Congress supplant committees of scientists in doling out funds. This year scientific pork hit a record high of nearly $800 million in projects, raising new howls from scientific officialdom. But in reality, the pork barrel is good for science and America. Pork has an honorable record in building this country, from highway construction to scientific research, a fact that should not be obscured by what are essentially raw squabbles for control of public money.
The science chieftains fail to understand that the flourishing state of pork, or "earmarked" appropriations, arises from a growing political devotion to science. The growth in pork signifies that science is politically attractive and everyone wants some of it. The dollar tally of earmarks for this year is at a record high, 51 percent over the previous year, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Spread liberally around the country, there's money for research on fish farming, cancer, fire ants, AIDS, transportation, construction of new laboratories and renovation of old ones, and much, much more.
Though the earmarked money is a small slice of the $15 billion that the government spends on academic research, the growth rate alarms scientific leaders. Earmarks bypass them and federal planning and priorities by dipping directly into the budgets of government agencies.
Do we hear jubilation from the recipients, mainly universities and medical research centers? No. While not averse to drum-beating about their growth and dynamism, they tend to be quiet about money delivered by hometown politicians. That's because pork has been officially stigmatized as unholy by the leading institutions of the scientific establishment.
By relying on scientific judgment and competition for funds, rather than political muscle, this establishment contends, the country will get the most and best science for its money. What's evident, however, is that if scientists had been allowed to run the system free of political interference, many of the great research centers around the country would never have come into existence. The reason is that in competition for research money, the rich institutions get richer because, in the short term, they indeed offer the best bets for fruitful use of government research money.
Universities that were late starters in the science derby understandably denounce the competitive system as stacked against them -- which is why they seek assistance from all-too-willing legislators and Washington lobbyists. Pork-barrel appropriations are responsible for great feats of scientific institution-building. The University of Washington in Seattle is a world-leading center of medical research, thanks to the long-ago beneficence of the late senator Warren Magnuson.
The Oregon Health Sciences University is a monument to the political skills of former senator Mark Hatfield (D-Ore.) during his long service on the Senate Appropriations Committee. Tufts University is a world-leading center for nutrition research, financed with appropriations engineered by its Washington lobbying firm and Massachusetts politicians. Rare among beneficiaries of pork appropriations, former Boston University president John R. Silber has publicly credited politically delivered money with rapidly building up his school's research capacity.
After many years in the shadows, the pork system is well established as an alternative means of financing the development of American science. Many leading universities now work the back alleys of politics in quest of earmarked appropriations for their research programs. The voice of big academic research in Washington, the 62-member Association of American Universities, has long been on record as anti-pork. But 45 of its member schools are on this year's list of earmark recipients.
Voicing the official view of the scientific establishment, the president of the AAU, Nils Hasselmo, has expressed concern about the growth of pork-barrel funds for science, describing it as "a very disturbing trend." It only looks that way. What it really shows is that politics is gung-ho for science, which is what scientists have been hoping for all along.
Daniel S. Greenberg is a science journalist.