New rules curb but don't end R&D earmarks

While new transparency rules passed by Congress nearly a year ago make it easier than ever to track earmarks in the budget bills Congress passed before leaving town last month, they didn't end the practice.

The numbers show $939 million in research and development earmarks in the fiscal 2008 omnibus budget bill, which did not include defense spending. Earmarks are defined as money an agency or department didn't request that is reserved by a member of Congress for a particular project, typically in his or her district.

While fiscal 2007 saw a virtual moratorium on earmarks because Congress cleared a stopgap budget rather than traditional spending bills, the fiscal 2008 numbers show Congress did live up to its promise to curb R&D earmarks.

The number had climbed to $1.5 billion in fiscal 2006 for federal budgets excluding the Defense Department. The Defense Department had the most earmarks for fiscal 2008, $3.5 billion of the $77.8 billion in R&D funding that passed as part of a separate budget bill. In the measure covering the other departments and agencies, the biggest R&D earmarks were found in the Agriculture and Energy departments.

Energy's science office made it through the appropriations process with a 5 percent R&D spending increase. Of that, 2.6 percent was earmarked.

Kei Koizumi, a researcher with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said it is difficult to pinpoint the impact of scientific earmarks because it is unknown what projects may have received funding in a competitive grant process.

But he said it's not unreasonable to deduce that if earmarks were curbed, several key projects including ITER, an international fusion energy project, could have been funded as promised. The International Linear Collider, seen as the centerpiece of high-energy physics and key to radiation in cancer treatment, was another victim of budget cuts.

Mike Lubell of the American Physical Society said his group has been trying to alert Congress that cuts in funding for those projects and reductions in money for labs researching synchrotron light sources will result in both industry and scientists moving more R&D overseas. He said the damages could be mitigated with $300 million in funding that could have been shaved from overall R&D earmarks.

"I cannot fault members of Congress," Lubell said. "The [academic] community itself is the culprit. Members do what they're asked to do."

There have been rumors for years that R&D earmarks were growing out of control, so Koizumi did what any scientist would do -- quantify it with charts and graphs. They have shown a steady rise in earmarks from fiscal 2002 to fiscal 2006.

New this year, thanks to the disclosure rules, is a state-by-state breakdown of which congressional districts are receiving the earmarks. The leading states with R&D earmarks are California, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Hawaii and Florida.

"It's always been the case that the most populous states and those with key appropriations cardinals would get the most earmarks," Koizumi said, referring to the lawmakers who head the Appropriations subcommittees. Only now there is more consistent data to illustrate the theory.

"It's been an interesting exercise," he said. "The policy implications are still unclear."

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