Congress set aside a record $2.3 billion in pet projects for colleges and universities last year for research on subjects like berries and reducing odors from swine and poultry, according to an analysis by The Chronicle of Higher Education to be published today.
Despite recent calls in Congress for a moratorium on the home state projects, known as earmarks, the sum was $300 million more than the last time The Chronicle conducted its survey, in 2003, when the total was $2.01 billion. When the publication first analyzed earmarks in 1990, legislators set aside $270 million for colleges and universities.
Congress approved 2,306 earmarks last year for higher education, compared with 223 in 1990, The Chronicle said.
The earmarks included several centers honoring legislators. Among these were a $1.9 million grant to help create the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College of New York. Rangel, Democrat of New York and the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, sponsored the earmark.
The largest single earmark for higher education went to the University of South Alabama, which received $30 million for an engineering and science center. Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., inserted the earmark into legislation.
Mississippi State University got the most money over all, $43 million for more than 30 projects. The University of Mississippi received $37 million from 27 earmarks. Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, was responsible for most of those, according to The Chronicle's analysis.
While such pork-barrel projects range far beyond academia, they are particularly controversial in higher education because they bypass the normal route for financing peer-reviewed scientific research. Typically, research proposals submitted to government entities like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation are selected based on broad national priorities.
Critics say universities can get more money with less scrutiny.
When it comes to earmarks, said James D. Savage, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, "those taxpayer dollars are allocated strictly on the basis of the power and access of the legislators involved."
But many lawmakers defend the practice, saying it enables them to support important local institutions and to encourage research that stimulates economic development or to addresses other public needs in their states.
"If the federal government is going to explore particular research initiatives," said Adam Telle, a spokesman for Cochran, "why shouldn't small portions of that research be done in Mississippi, a place where it can both serve the national interest and also generate real opportunity where little may have existed before?"
All three presidential candidates - Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican Party nominee, and his prospective Democratic rivals, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama - have said they would support a moratorium on earmarks. But the Senate rejected the idea March 13, falling 31 votes short of the 60 needed to overcome a procedural hurdle.
McCain, who has criticized earmarks as wasteful, did not introduce any last year. Obama obtained 10 earmarks worth a total of $19 million, according to the analysis, and Clinton was responsible for 21 earmarks worth $70 million, the sixth-highest total in the Senate.