Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Education earmarks

James Fallows identifies the U.S. political system as something that needs to be fixed in order for America to "rise again". He quotes the president of Princeton, Shirley Tilghman:

Scientists I spoke with said that as more and more research money is assigned by favoritism and earmark, it becomes harder for scientists to pursue the most-promising research opportunities. “The amount of earmarking that has percolated into the scientific establishment is disturbing,” Shirley Tilghman, of Princeton, told me, referring to congressional appropriations that single out particular scientists or projects for support rather than letting research organizations distribute the money. “Science is not a democracy. It is a meritocracy. The old cliché that 90 percent of the progress comes from 10 percent of the people is true. You want a system that acknowledges that the first priority is to get resources into the hands of the very best scientists, who are going to do the vast majority of the work that will move us ahead.”

My reading of Too Damn Much Money points to the rise of earmarks as a result of the so-called meritocracy. The NSF and other grant making entities were viewed by schools such as Tufts, Georgetown and Boston University as a clubby "old-boys" network. The schools that already had the grants tended to get more grants because they already had established research to rely on. Schols trying to break into research and hence grants were not able to do so and responded by hiring lobbyists to earmark appropriations for them.

A description of this process is here. Robert Kaiser identifies Tufts and its president Jean Mayer as the person who changed the course of lobbying history.

In the summer of 1976, a famous nutritionist named Jean Mayer responded to the mass mailing that Kenneth Schlossberg and Gerald Cassidy had sent to nearly everyone they knew, offering the services of their new Washington consulting firm. Mayer's reply changed the course of history.

... Within two years Congress appropriated $27 million for the nutrition center, which stands today in Boston's Chinatown neighborhood -- the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging. And soon afterward, Congress appropriated $10 million more for the veterinary school. In effect, Mayer, Schlossberg and Cassidy had hit upon a new technique for extracting federal dollars for a "special interest." Within a generation their discovery would transform the way the federal government spends money.

Those appropriations for Tufts' human nutrition research center constituted a new kind of modern "earmark." Members of Congress had always voted for projects that "brought home the bacon" -- "pork barrel" spending meant to help their home states or districts, and by extension to help members politically. Bridges, highways, post offices, water projects -- these were traditional pork, often included in "earmarked," or specifically designed, appropriations items. ...

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