The Unspoken Research Evil of Earmarks

November 16, 2009 at 12:05 AM Leave a comment

Written by Lewis D. Eigen


Earmarks!  That is the term of politics for the Congress to pass a law which specifies that a particular kind of research and specifies who should be the grant or contract awardee to conduct that research.  Once signed into law, the agency has no discretion but must make the award to the stated researcher or institution.  Typically, there is no Congressional debate, but a single member of Congress asks his colleagues to vote for his/her pet projects and in return, he/she votes for theirs.  The reasons that this mechanism is so damaging have been widely publicized and was a major issue in the 2008 Presidential election.  Candidate Senator John McCain, for years, had been fighting against earmarks, and made a campaign pledge that, if elected President, he would never sign a bill that had earmarks in it.  Obama also claimed to oppose earmarks, but where McCain had never asked for or obtained earmarks, Obama had asked for and captured his share for his state.  He did not give an absolute pledge against earmarks.  The Democratic House leadership however did.  When Obama was elected, he would not allow any earmarks in his Stimulus Package, but he did sign the budget that had been passed by the previous Democratic-controlled Congress with billions of dollars worth of earmarks.  He did however hold his nose while signing.

earmarksEarmarks used to be a minor corrupting problem with about 3,000 passed a year, but when George W. Bush prevailed in the 2000 election and there was a Republican Congress, they reacted to the fact that Democrats had the larger share of the earmarks and they made up for all the years they had been out of Congressional power.  By 2005 the number of earmarks had been increased almost fivefold to 14,000 in a single year.  That year there were more earmarks than had been passed in the full 4 years of teh Clinton Presidency–which istelf had been a little larger than previous.  With the earmark as a polticial issue in the Congressional election year of 2006, the Congress reduced their earmarks to almost 10,000 and then had the nerve to tell the voters that they were cleaning up the earmark mess.  The voters, turned the Republicans out, and the incoming Democaratic leadership committed itself to cleaning up the earmark mess.  But then the 2008 budget was passed the Democratic leadership could not control their caucus or the Republican caucus who wanted to show that they had brought home the bacon for their own 2008 election.

A recitation of all the evils of earmarks is beyond the scope of this article, but there is one that negatively effects the scientific research of the nation.  It is one what has rarely ever been mentioned politically and most of the media have ignored it or may not realize the problem exists.

It is the negative affect on the scientific researchers themselves and their processes and institutions.

Here are a few examples:

I serve as a board member of a non-profit research organization in the health field.  In one of the board meetings in 2007, one of the new members of the board asked what earmarks the organization had obtained.  He was surprised that there were none and was even more surprised that the organization did not have a lobbyist.  While about half the revenues of the organizations were donations, the other half came from winning competitive government grants and contracts.  In that particular year, the organization had not won as much as usual.  The older board members, including myself, had never even considered the prospect of trying to arrange and earmark.  We had all been steeped in the wcientific integrity of the competitive process and saw the earmark process as a little ethically tainted for any organziation which asked for one.  The new board member started rattling off major universities which employed paid lobbyists to obtain earmarks for research grants. A proposal was made that we hire a lobbyist to arrange earmarks for us.  It was voted down overwhelmingly.  About a month later, the Executive Director was informed by a federal agency that the scientific conference that we had put on each year with funding from the agency would not be funded this year.  That was distressing of course, but it happens as agencies often have limited budgets.  However, this particular loss, was a new type of happening for us.  There was nothing wrong with our proposal, and the agency had this conference as one of its highest priorities.  One of the agency leaders told us off the record.

“The agency traditionally has a relatively small budget for research and research dissemination.  We are mostly an operational organization. From that small budget, we would allocate funds to what we felt were the most important studies or research conferences like yours.  However this year we had no discretionary money.  We had the same appropriation as last year, but we also had 7 earmarks.  By law we had to fund those.  When we did, there was no money left over for your conference.  We didn’t even have the funds to do our annual national survey—the first time in 27 years that we will not have continuous data.  Congress appropriated ‘discretionary R&D funds’ and then used their discretion to decide, not ours.  The tradegdy of the 7 earmarks however is that 3 of them our useless for our program.  2 of the remaining 4 are earmarked for organizations that have no track record of doing the kind of work invoiced.  And one of the remaining earmarks, goes to some contributor’s son who designed a study that is technically wrong and will not prove anything.  There is only 1 of the 7 that we find acceptable and would award.  But now there are a number of studies we need done, and we have no funds for them.  We are earmarked out of funds.  This year we will have none of the work that we want.”

At the next Board meeting, a majority of the Board voted to hire a lobbyist and try and get some earmark’s for ourselves.  That would cost substantial money and thereafter we have had to get even more money for the work that we do than in the past, as we have to pay for the lobbying effort.  If we added up all the lobbying fees paid to obtain scientific research today, we could fund a major entire new scientific agency plus its research.  Once the research organziations buy into the earmark process, de facto a significant proportion of federal research money is transferred to lobbyists and to Congressional campaigns.  Most universites do not contribute to partisan political campaigns.  They pay the lobbyists and the lobbyists make the controbutions.

In another instance, an earmark was added to legislation by a Congressman.  It was to do an experiment that one of the professors at the state university had recommended to the a federal agency in a proposal.  The proposal had been through the peer review system and was recommended for funding by a board of scientists.  However, just before funding, the agency realized that Congress had earmarked the same study in another agency.  To fund the professor, the agency would just be duplicating a study that was going to be done anyway.  So they did not.  The person for whom the earmark had designated, working for a research company, did not have the background or track record of the professor.  Nor did he write any technical proposal.  He just wrote 3 paragraphs which his lobbyist transmitted to the Congressman’s staff and that was in the legislation.  No one had made a judgment of any kind that the methodology that would be used by the awardee with of the earmark would be sound science.  The professor’s proposal which had been passed and approved by scientists and a federal agency staff, would not be funded, in favor of, the earmark which was funded.  There is an apocryphal story of a member of Congress who was asked by a colleague, why he earmarked a study for one particular principle investigator as opposed to award the study to another researcher who was better and had a better research approach.  The supposed answer,

“How in the hell am I going to tell the difference between two scientists much less the different approaches to doing a study?  I’m no scientist.” 

But that is exactly what members of Congress do all the time when they get an ear mark passed.  The professor, who never got the grant that was approved, never wrote another proposal to a federal agency.  As a matter of fact, instead of continuing in the research area, he devoted his time to private consulting and teaching.  The field had lost a first class researcher.  And that is an example of the terrible price that was paid for the earmark.

Earmarks then, discourage many researchers from participating in our competitive system.  Others then spend money and effort to get earmarks as there is almost no researcher who feels that she has the skill or inclination to lobby members of Congress.  All competitive research projects get more expensive as the institutions have to recoup their lobbying funds one way or another, usually through the institutions’ overhead rates, which the Congresspersons often criticize because the are too high.  They are one of the major reasons the overhead rates are so high.

The worst consequence of the earmark system I observed at a small state school.  A professor with an excellent grant proposal idea, came to me and asked for a donation of access to some of our technology equipment that the school did not have.  I agreed that they could use our equipment, and liked the idea so much that I even offered my help and drafted a section of the proposal.  A week later, I received a dejected call from the professor, that his institution was not going to allow him to submit the proposal.  I asked why and he was not sure, but he had an appointment that afternoon with the Vice President of the school.  He invited me.

As someone who has served on many proposal review panels, I assured the Vice President that the proposal stood an very good chance of getting funded.  Sometimes university administrators fear that the school might be embarrassed by a poor or mediocre proposal.

“Oh, No,” the Vice President explained.  It’s an excellent proposal, and it would stand a good chance of being funded.  That’s why I don’t want to submit it.”

Observing the look on our faces, she explained.

“As you know, we are on a major fundraising drive to build a new building for this area of research.  We submitted a proposal last year to the same agency as you are proposing to for an institutional grant to equip all the labs for the new building.  They gave our proposal a high score but did not have the $4 million to fund us.  So I and our Legislative Consultant [translation: Lobbyist] have convinced two of our Congressmen and one of our Senators to put in an earmark for us.  But they all asked the same question.  How much other money did we win from the agency recently?  They think that they can get one research earmark this year for a school in the state?  I keep arguing that the money is going to other state schools, and we need to be sure that there is some money that is spent in our state.  And they buy this.  If we win this $1.5 million grant, they will find out, and then reason that we got ours, and they should earmark this year for another school.  I don’t want them to be able to get off the hook for $4 million because we have competitively won $1.5 million.  Perhaps next year after we get out big earmark, we can submit the professor’s proposal.”

In a large university an administrator would not have dared block a proposal submission for such a reason.  The faculty senate would revolt.  But in smaller schools administrators have more power.  I was jarred by how warped the system had become.  The VP was unfortunately strategically right.  But in a larger sense, which proposals does a university put its lobbying effort behind.  Under the merit system, at least, the university administrations did not have to play favorites.  The school could submit all the proposals professors would write, and the university would also let the peer review system determine which were the most meritorious.  With extensive earmarks, the school leaders have to take sides.  And the lobbyist has a hand in designing the research–a role for which he is totally unqualified.  But he “advises” what elements would be attractive to the particular Congressmen or women and for that he is very qell qualified.  Good politics drives out good science and produces inferior research.  Some large universities use more than one lobbyist—the medical school might have one and the Engineering School another.

As a nation we spend over $1 million to train a qualified research scientist.  When a member of Congress awards an earmark, she may be assisting an undeserving, mediocre scientist to carry out a relativly poor and insignificant study, while the much more qualified researcher is unfunded and a really important never gets done.  In the worst case, the researcher gets out of research, wasting the million dollars, but worse, denying the society the research he/she might have done.  The $300,000 earmark might help bring a few jobs to the Congress member’s district but the cost could easily be the $1 million of wasted training money and the more enourmous value of the good research that might have been done.

The earmarks therefore not only corrupt the congress members, the lobbyists, and the legislative process, but they corrupt the scientific process as well–a much greater cost than most earmark critics even realize.

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Entry filed under: Health & Medicine, Politics, Science. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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