Monday, March 31, 2008

Earmarks Are Bad For Science

Given the recent news on Penn State's research earmarks I think a brief review of the problem with federal earmarks is in order.

Congressional earmarks, which at $18.4 billion in 2008 made up less than one percent of the $2.5 trillion budget, are not a large contributor to the federal deficit. The trouble with earmarks is two fold. First they can be used to kickback to political contributors and second they can bypass establish procedures for the allocation of funds already in the budget on the basis of merit. A classic example of an earmark which illustrates both of these problems is Representative Don Young's (R-Alaska) earmark for the Coconut Road Interchange in Florida.
Watchdog groups have accused then-House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) of changing the earmark language in the 2005 highway bill to benefit a contributor and real estate developer after both chambers passed the legislation but before it reached the president’s desk. The altered language designated the money for “Coconut Road Interchange” on Interstate 75, whereas the original language authorized the money only for “widening and improvements” for I-75.

The watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense has called for an ethics investigation and has accused Young of abusing the legislative process to make an unorthodox change that benefited real estate developers who want the interchange. Those developers include Daniel Aronoff, who helped Young raise $40,000 at a February 2005 fundraiser.

The local transit authority has twice voted to send the money back to Congress in hopes that it can be channeled to the road-widening project, a top area priority that won $81 million in separate language in the 2005 highway bill.
Incidentally, in addition to Young's contributor, Florida Gulf Coast University also sought the earmark to fund the interchange as a "demonstration" project.

The recent rule changes which makes public the names of congressmen and senators that request specific earmarks should be a deterrent to their use as kickbacks. However, there is no reason to think that this this new transparency will stop lawmakers from bringing home the pork of their constituents since most earmarks viewed positively by constituents.

The problem with academic research earmarks is not that they are likely to be thinly disguised kickbacks. The problem is that they undermine the peer review system for distributing federal funds for scientific research. This system is based on the very defensible proposition that scientists know better than politicians what projects are deserving of money. Hence it is likely that when congress earmarks funds for a research project it comes at the expense of a project which is scientifically more deserving.

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