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Can universities survive without academic earmarks?

Julie Kesselman
May 15, 2006, 6:55am

Why not? Just look at the University of Texas - Austin; the Wall Street Journal reports today that Computer billionaire Michael Dell and his wife will give $50 million to the University of Texas for a pediatric research institute, a computer-sciences building and a center for healthy living. This type of private academic funding is much preferable to the method of rent-seeking that university lobbyists have been relying on more and more over the years; they focus more on (often taxpayer-funded) free football tickets than free thinking. By requesting so-called "directed grants," or academic earmarks, universities are subverting the time-honored process of academic competition to garner research funds. In short, earmark-seeking academic researchers are becoming welfare queens in white coats. Directed grants are academic ersatz; they fundamentally undermine scholarly competition and the peer review process that ensures quality in academia. Instead of relying on their academic acumen, universities must rely on connections to members of the powerful appropriations committees in Congress, which set the budget, to obtain earmarks. For example, New Hampshire, the only state with no earmarks in 1995, leapt to seventh among states in 2001. Why the jump? Because in 1999, one of the state's senators, Judd Gregg, a Republican, became the chairman of an appropriations subcommittee and began working actively to secure the funds. Apologists for academic pork have long held that the dollar amount dedicated to it pales in comparison to the government's spending on peer-reviewed research; however, if spending on earmarks continues to rise sharply, that gap may soon narrow. What is more, the practice of rent-seeking instead of truth-seeking far outweighs any monetary incongruities. To put it simply (if not a tad dramatically) academic earmarks threaten the very fabric of competition and free thinking in the academic world. Yet supporters of the grants also say that without the earmarked appropriations, some worthy projects wouldn't get through the difficult and highly competitive process of review. The government's competitively awarded research grants go to a disproportionately small group of elite institutions, the supporters say, and the agencies' spending priorities are too narrow. To that I say, so what? If the project is so worthy, it'll get funded by someone. Good ideas don't languish in a healthy and competitive culture; however, they will if such ideas have to compete with sky-box tickets to a championship game. So back to the question: Can universities survive without academic earmarks? If they can't, they shouldn't.


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