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Earmarks Undermine Peer-reviewed Research Credibility

This story was written by Jon Collins, Minnesota Daily

One of the most controversial aspects of lobbying in higher education is the use of earmarks, or funds directed by members of Congress toward specific projects.

While earmarks have gained a reputation for corruption through projects like Alaskas notorious Bridge to Nowhere, in the academic world earmarks are often viewed as a threat to the longstanding peer-reviewed funding process overseen by organizations like the National Science Foundation.

Between 1998 and 2008, academic earmarks nationwide increased from 338 to 2,306.

In 2008 the University of Minnesota received nine earmarks worth $12 million, some of which might be shared with other institutions, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The earmarks fund projects ranging from cancer research to advanced hypersonic defense research.

Channing Riggs , the Universitys director of federal relations, said she invests little time pursuing earmarks, and that they constitute a very small percentage of University research dollars.

Sure, if we didnt do it, there would be that much more [money available for peer-reviewed research], but it is not where most research is funded, she said. Most of its funded competitively.

Brian Silverman, a University of Toronto professor at the Rotman School of Management and author of the 2006 study Academic Earmarks and the Returns to Lobbying, said many schools, including private schools, pay lobbyists to convince members of Congress to fund projects through earmarks to avoid the peer review process.

If you get the U.S. budget after appropriations committee there will be sentences in there that say things like, We want the Department of Health to give $1 million to the University of Minnesota this year for the study of mice, Silverman said, giving a hypothetical example. The U.S. budget has nothing to do with peer review; its not clear why Minnesota gets the millions of dollars, as opposed to someone else, to study mice.

The university ranks 52nd of 848 higher education institutions that receive earmarks, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, but the Twin Cities campus also belongs to the Association of American Universities , a group of 60 public and private research universities in the United States that supports the peer-reviewed funding process.

A focus of the organization is to make sure the peer-reviewed process is maintained because too many earmarks could divert financial resources from peer-reviewed research, AAU spokesman Barry Toiv said.

We want to make sure agencies that dont have earmarking stay that way, he said. Its fair to say that, as a general rule, the AAU strongly supports federal funding for peer-reviewed research.

Whether they want to lobby for earmarks is up to the discretion of each school, Toiv said.

But because many earmarks are shared between a number of schools, some universities might not even be aware that they use earmarks, Silverman said.

I once had a great conversation with a president of an Ivy League school where his school came out and said We wont lobby for earmarks, Silverman said. But the medical school went out and lobbied for earmarks anyway, and he basically said, Theres no way I can control our medical school.

The process of peer review generally makes research projects more accountable to the funding they receive than earmarks do, Silverman said.

And connecting universities to the concept of earmarks, which are generally unpopular, could threaten the privileged position universities have in our society, he said.

Ideally Id like to think that they dont have to be sullied by the political process too mch, Silverman said. The extent to which they feel compelled to [lobby for earmarks] may not be a good thing and it might tarnish their reputations further with the general public.

Still, earmarks for academics arent the most problematic earmarks that exist, Silverman said.

If youre going to earmark money for something, I guess, then earmarking it for universities rather than Bridges to Nowhere is probably a good thing, he said. But all else equal I think fewer earmarks are better.

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