This story was written by Kevin Robillard, The Diamondback
Last year, U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), a University ofMarylandalumnus whose district contains College Park, shuttled more than $7 million to the university for various research projects.
But none of the money came from his pocket - rather, it came from the federal treasury.
Hoyer and other members of the Maryland congressional delegation sponsored six earmarks totaling $7,419,286 for projects at the university, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.
The practice of earmarking money for research at universities is widespread - more than $2.25 billion went to 920 colleges and universities in fiscal year 2008, according to The Chronicle. But the process to grant government funds to university research efforts, as well as the amount of money available, may change drastically depending on the outcome of the 2008 presidential election.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) has pledged to eliminate all earmarks if elected president, citing one earmark given to research on grizzly bear DNA in Montana as a reason why the earmark process doesn't work.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) has said comparatively little about earmarks during his campaign but has pledged to double federal funding for basic research into mathematics, the biological and life sciences, and engineering over the next decade.
The federal government provides more than three-quarters of the university's $401 million research budget through peer review -a process in which other academics determine who receives research funding - Associate Vice President for Research Ken Gertz said. The rest of the funding comes from foundations, corporations and the state.
Despite many people's focus on earmarks, they aren't a major source of the university's research funding, making up only 1.8 percent of the research budget last year.
"The university's position is that we don't go for earmarks unless it's extraordinary circumstances," Gertz said. "We're not one of those universities that rely on earmarks."
University President Dan Mote said he prefers the competitive grant process, but also said that some research projects don't match up with any existing grant program.
Administrators said they hope to increase the university's research budget to about $700 million a year by 2018. But the university's research budget has been flat from last year to this one, which Gertz said is largely due to less research money being available. Since 2003, funding for the National Institutes of Health, for example, has been outpaced by inflation.
McCain has called for a total freeze of spending in the federal budget except national defense and entitlements, but one of his advisors, Ike Brannon, said at a panel sponsored by Research!America, an advocacy group, that the freeze wouldn't apply to science programs either, according to The Hill.
The university stands to gain regardless of whose research funding plan is implemented. Although the university wants to increase the amount of money it receives from foundations, an increase in research funding is also likely necessary for the university to reach its $700 million goal. But any increase in peer-reviewed research funding would be a break from recent history.
"The funding wasn't flowing as freely as quite as easily" in recent years, Gertz said.
But while money coming from peer-reviewed agencies like the National Science Foundation and NIH has largely been stagnant recently, where earmarks have grown 25 percent since 2003, the amount spent on peer-review funding is still much greater than money earmarked for research. And outsie of the large grant-giving agencies like NSF and NIH, other federal agencies give out far more in earmarks than in peer-reviewed funding, said James Savage, a political scientist at the University of Virginia who has studied the relationship between earmarks and higher education. He cited the Transportation Department, whose research grants are about 70 percent earmarks.
This, Savage said, prevents federal agencies from doing their jobs because instead of agency staffers sending money to areas that may need it, congressmen are able to redirect money based on political power rather than policy needs.
"It undermines the ability of the agency to set priorities and fulfill their mission," Savage said.