Increasing stigma surrounding earmarked academic funding did not keep Texas institutions from receiving the most of these controversial grants in the nation for 2008.
Texas A&M University at College Station received the most grant money of the state institutions, with $31.3 million in earmarked funds. The University of Texas at Austin ranked 34 among the 848 grant recipients, with $11.6 million in funding, according to a report by the Chronicle of Higher Education.
"[Earmarks are] really a small fraction of all the federal funding that we received," said Juan Sanchez, UT vice president for research. "I think we've managed the process very responsibly."
The U.S. Office of Management and Budget defines earmarks as congressional funds not allocated through a competitive or merit-based process, directed to a specific location or recipient. A common argument against academic earmarking is that it inhibits innovation by rewarding projects that have not won funding in a competitive process.
One UT project funded by earmarks is a joint effort of the Wireless and Circuits Group and the Wireless Networking and Communications Group. The researchers aim to develop wireless technology that streams high-definition video over a short range.
Jeff Andrews, associate director of the networking and communications group, said the project received funding in part because principal investigator Ted Rappaport had a good personal relationship with earmark sponsor Texas Republican Rep. Lamar Smith.
Andrews said he would prefer funding come from peer-reviewed federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation.
"Rather than a million dollars being given here and there at the whim of a congressman, it's better for experts to dole out the money," Andrews said. "But that's not how it works. I guess I'd rather have this money going to us than to go to build a museum for butterflies somewhere in Ohio."
Andrews said one problem with the foundation is that it is more likely to give money to already-established researchers.
Michael Domjan, director of UT's Imaging Research Center, said it sought an earmark to support its magnetic resonance imaging laboratory because it was a start-up project that would not be eligible for peer-reviewed federal grants.
"We were in a special situation," Domjan said. "The imaging center here is just getting established. Our business model is that it's going to take about five years to build up a number of projects so we could start to pay for operation on our own."
Foundation spokeswoman Diane Banegas said it encourages nontraditional institutions to apply, but funding has become more competitive. The foundation funds one-in-four proposals now, whereas it funded one-in-three proposals 10 years ago.
Sanchez said UT helps certain researchers find earmarked funding if the projects meet specific criteria: They must be of value to UT and the state of Texas, and there must be no opportunity for the project to receive competitive federal funding.
"The piece that is controversial about earmarks is it's a process that could be abused, but if universities act responsibly, then I don't particularly object," he said.
Sanchez said UT works with the deans of the different colleges and with faculty members to identify projects that meet the criteria. The University prioritizes them, chooses approximately five and then begins to work with the Texas congressional delegation.
Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Democratic Rep. Chet Edwards, both from Texas, were among the top academic earmark distributors in Congress, according to the Chronicle's report. Hutchison distributed $73.1 million in academic earmarks and Edwards distributed $35.9 million in 2008.
Both Edwards and Hutchion are members of congressional appropriations subcommittees. Edwards is also a member of the House budget subcommittee.
Sanchez said UT often works directly with Hutchison.
"She's an alumna of UT and therefore very good with us," Sanchez said.
Accounting professor Michael Granof said earmarking is unlikely to end because incumbent legislators use it as a political tool.
"[Earmarks] are very important to the individual congressmen because they benefit their individual district," Granof said. "That's the advantage the incumbent representatives have: They can say they brought the dollars home."
© 2008 Daily Texan via U-WIRE