Thursday, Jan. 18, 2007 | There is a lot of history behind Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s new proposal to build two new dams to increase California’s water supply. But it all goes back to a budget earmark.

Added to the 2003 appropriations for the U.S. Department of Commerce during a closed-door budget conference, the earmark directed $2 million to University of California, San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The money was meant to help the energy industry make more efficient predictions of power demand by improving forecasts of rain and temperature and, in turn, led to new discoveries about the trends of melting of Sierra Nevada’s snowpack. That led to the call for new dams.

The grant was only a small part of the millions of dollars San Diego universities secure each year through earmarking, money the campuses could lose if the new Democratic majority in Congress follows through on promises to reduce pork-barrel spending by elected officials. It’s also an example of how earmarking, a much-criticized process by which lawmakers set aside money for their pet projects with little public scrutiny or debate, has also proven to be an incubator for ground-breaking research and innovation.

Critics of academic earmarking, the funneling of federal money to individual universities or for research on specific issues, have long argued that it diverts needed funds from projects rigorously reviewed by panels of scientific experts. But the practice has exploded over the past decade, and nearly one-tenth of the estimated $30 billion in federal pork is now estimated to go to universities.

All of the major local academic institutions, though, argue that their money is well deserved and pays for worthy programs. As one saying in Washington goes, one man’s pork is another man’s job. For some universities, it could also be a vital lab, a new research institute, high-tech equipment or the cure for cancer. For smaller campuses, which receive little money through to traditional competitive grants, it is the great equalizer.

“We’re really David going against a whole bunch of Goliaths,” said Thomas Cleary, director of government relations at University of San Diego. “So it’s kind of hard to get noticed, regardless of the merit of that particular grant proposal.”

Traditionally, colleges have secured federal funding by submitting project proposals to federal agencies like the National Science Foundation, where they are reviewed by panels of specialists. That peer-review process is largely credited with making the United States a world leader in new inventions and scientific discoveries. But Cleary argues that the private Catholic campus gets overlooked in competitive programs that favor of large research universities. The money it has received through earmarks, he said, has helped fill critical needs, like training more nurses in a state where they are in short supply.

Since 2000, USD has received more than $4 million in directed federal funding, according to records of earmarks maintained by the Chronicle of Higher Education and Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog group. To get the money, the university has hired Washington lobbyists; it paid one lobbying firm $80,000 in the first half of 2006, according to the most recent filings available.

Local Rewards
San Diego-area universities secure millions of dollars each year in federal earmarks. Here is a selection of recent funds set aside in the federal budget:

San Diego State University

  • $4.6 million to accelerate the commercialization of defense technology
  • $2.5 million shared with nine institutions to conduct research on regional environmental problems along the U.S.-Mexico border
Alliant International University
  • $400,000 for a Center for Innovation in Behavioral Health
University of California, San Diego
  • $650,000 for facilities and equipment at UCSD School of Medicine’s Institute of Molecular Medicine
  • $3.5 million for research on simulation of explosives
University of San Diego
  • $200,000 for additions to the Hahn School of Nursing
  • $1 million for a demonstration project in distance learning in fields of interest to the Navy and Defense Department
Sources: Citizens Against Government Waste,
Chronicle of Higher Education

Up in La Jolla, John Orcutt, UCSD’s government relations chief, said the university only asks for earmarks money that is simply not available through the merit-based programs. The university, he said, has strict internal checks assuring that earmarks promote the mission of the federal agency in whose budget the earmark would be inserted and do not undermine the availability of peer-reviewed funding. He estimates that the university receives less than $5 million per year in this way, a tiny fraction of UCSD’s $600 million federal research budget.

In August, UCSD was one of 100 universities singled out by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a vocal critic of earmarks who sent the university a letter asking for details of its federal lobbying and fundraising activities.

It never responded, instead allowing UC President Robert C. Dynes to issue a statement to the senator on behalf of the entire university system, assuring Coburn that “the University will not pursue earmarking of competitive, peer-reviewed research funds, and will continue to discourage earmarking that comes at the expense of sustaining peer-reviewed programs.”

“The University’s historic resistance of the temptation to pursue federal earmarks has afforded us the credibility to advocate for a wide variety of federal research, education, and health care programs that grant awards … that benefit the University, the state and the nation,” Dynes wrote.

However, one former UC official who worked at the university’s office in Washington, D.C. and now teaches politics at the University of Virginia, James Savage, said the university has also been guilty of pork barreling. In 2000, Savage published a book exploring the rise of academic earmarks.

Though he acknowledges that, individually, UCSD and USD may have a valid reason to pursue earmarked funds, Savage argues that, in aggregate, the benefits of academic earmarks have now become outweighed by their costs.

While not all earmarks may be bad, direct allocations by members of Congress make it less likely that only the most deserving projects rise to the top, as is envisioned by peer review, say critics like Savage. Originally a way to get money to pay for research, academic earmarks now also fund new buildings and go to colleges that don’t even perform any original research of their own.

“The original logic has fallen by the wayside,” he said. “Those people were naive, because they thought they could contain it in the research community.”

As an example of earmarking gone wrong, Savage points to San Diego State University.

Since 1994, when the San Diego State University Research Foundation hired former Congressman Bill Lowery and his firm to do its lobbying in Washington, the university has secured more than $64 million in federal earmarks, said W. Timothy Hushen, the foundation’s chief of sponsored research services. In that time, it has paid the lobbyists $3.1 million, though Hushen estimates that only two-thirds of that was for securing federal funding.

When they’re available, Hushen said the SDSU opts for competitive programs.

“That’s our philosophy: If there is a program, we are more than happy to compete, and we almost always do,” he said. “These are areas where competitive programs don’t exist, where the national need is not being met, and we have unique resources to address these needs.”

Since 2000, SDSU has secured nearly $10 million to accelerate the commercialization of new military technologies, advances Hushen said are now being used by U.S. troops by Iraq. The university first decided to get into the earmarking game when a slump in the defense industry in the early 1990s left nearly 30,000 unemployed in the region, and SDSU asked for federal help in funding specialized training programs to help teach new skills.

“It’s a perfect example into how this whole thing has devolved into pork barreling for local needs,” Savage said. “They (SDSU) don’t give a hoot about the rules, because they don’t belong to any of the research organizations. All they care about is the money, and they’re desperate.”

Savage credits two members of San Diego’s congressional delegation for the region’s earmarked loot: Jerry Lewis and Randy “Duke” Cunningham. Both Republicans served on the House defense appropriations subcommittee — and nearly one-third of all academic earmarks are attached to the annual Defense Department budget.

Cunningham is now serving time in federal prison after admitting to accepting millions in bribes in exchange for earmarks. Lewis and Lowery have faced criticism for earmarks Lewis steered to Lowery’s clients, who also donated to Lewis’ campaign.

With the federal budget strained by a war in Iraq and a ballooning deficit, every dollar spent on local pork is a dollar that cannot be used for other, key government programs, critics argue. The same, they say, is true for academic earmarks.

“Why is this one area of academic life somehow unique, where it’s justifiable to violate the peer-review process?” Savage asked. “It actually boils down to (the fact) that some presidents, and some faculty members, in order to feather their hats or deal with their problems are willing to violate the norm. It becomes a choice between individual self-promotion, as opposed to promoting the general quality of science, the institutions and our national research effort.”

Few of the reform proposals offered so far, including the disclosure rules for earmarks adopted by the Senate earlier this week, will likely have much impact on local universities, though, the college officials predict. But they’re watching carefully to see what happens on Capitol Hill.

“Usually, in the past, the rhetoric on the Hill has been more substantial than action taken,” UCSD’s Orcutt said.

For now, UCSD’s Jacobs School of Engineering is working on a request to expand its outdoor shaking table to more accurately simulate earthquakes. The facility is the only one of its kind in the country, so there is no merit-based federal program under which the university can get the money, said the school’s dean, Frieder Seible.

Earmarks attached to the defense budget have allowed the Jacobs School to construct another first: A functioning blast simulator that allows engineers to study structures during an explosion. The structure is so novel, five different countries have asked for permission to study it.

“In my mind, this in itself already justifies congressional earmarks,” Seible said.

Please contact Vladimir Kogan directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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