Congress gave a lukewarm reception to Energy Secretary Steven Chu's plan to create eight "innovation hubs" focused on developing breakthrough technologies. Lawmakers responded far more warmly to requests to fund energy research in their own backyards.
Members of the House and Senate Appropriations committees who wrote legislation financing the Department of Energy and water projects tucked into those bills at least $75.2 million in earmarks for research at schools back home.
Cash would go to dozens of schools, including Arkansas State University, Auburn University, Clemson University, Colorado State University, Washington State University, Montana State University, Eastern Illinois University, Kansas State University, and the Universities of Florida, Kentucky, Hawaii, Nebraska and Tulsa.
It is also going to lesser-known institutions like Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Creighton University in Nebraska, Crowder College in Missouri, Great Basin College in Nevada and Alternative Energy School of the Future, also in Nevada. Projects include work on biomass, geothermal energy, electrical grid reliability and solar photovoltaics and a number of other efforts.
Earmark sponsors range from freshman House members like Rep. Betsy Markey (D-Colo.) to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
"This is what Congress is. Congress is a whole bunch of parochial interests," said Sam Thernstrom, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "It's what the votes line up for. If you spread the money around, you line up the votes. That's what this is all about."
The bulk of the earmarks came in the $33.3 billion House spending bill for fiscal 2010, which passed in mid-July. Research projects for schools totaling $57.5 million make up about a quarter of the total $231.2 million DOE earmarks in the spending measure, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.
The $34.3 billion Senate spending bill passed at the end of July. A review of that measure shows at least 14 earmarks to colleges and universities worth $17.5 million. There likely are more earmarks to schools, but spending described by lawmakers as "congressionally directed funding" often is listed by the name of the program instead of the school receiving the money.
Spending in the House bill is more transparent because lawmakers there write to Appropriations committees requesting the earmarks and providing many details and justification. The Senate does not require the same level of disclosure, with some letters merely stating that the lawmaker does not have a financial interest in the project he or she is backing.
The earmarks appear likely to become law, once the spending bills are merged into one. The White House has said it supports the legislation, though a statement of administration policy criticized the legislation for failing to fund all eight innovation hubs that DOE had requested. The House in its bill funded one hub at $35 million. The Senate funded one, transferred funding from stimulus legislation to fund two others, and rejected the remaining five outright.
Two Chu aides yesterday did not respond to requests for comment on the earmarks to schools. DOE's proposal for the innovation hubs said they would "focus a high-quality team of researchers on a specific question and to encourage risk taking that can produce real breakthroughs, as opposed to the typical, more cautious approach that can result in meaningful, but often only incremental, improvements to existing technology."
Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, questioned using earmarks to fund research.
"The gold standard in academic research is peer-reviewed analysis," Ellis said. "Picking the winners and losers based on geography and not who has conducted the best research is a recipe for wasting precious taxpayer dollars."
"Unfortunately, research is being treated just like any other parochial project," Ellis added. "Lawmakers are just trying to bring home the bacon and not figure out who is going to do the highest and best research for the challenges facing the country."
An aide to the House Appropriation Committee who was familiar with the writing of the DOE spending bill said Chu's proposal and the earmarks are not mutually exclusive. The aide, who asked not to be identified, citing committee policy, said creating innovation centers is "an idea that on its face looks good" and that "we are moving forward slowly with the idea and would like to see how it would work and what it is." In the meantime, the aide said, the earmarks are "member-directed funding, which is a basic part of what Congress does."
"You could fully fund the innovation hubs and still have funding going to schools through projects," the aide said. "You're working both approaches in a bill."
Ellis called it a zero-sum game.
"The money that goes to 'Podunk U' is money that is not available to go to other universities around the country that might be far more qualified scientifically but far less capable politically," Ellis said.
'Big business for colleges'
The process by which lawmakers obtain earmarks opens a window into the hunt for money that's now being tied to the push for energy innovations.
Lawmakers must submit a letter to the Appropriations Committee for each earmark they request. The letters name the entity that would receive the money and explain how it would be used.
A review of the letters submitted to the House Appropriations Committee shows how many schools are seeking funding and how eager lawmakers are for less controversial paths to send money home. Lawmakers in asking for earmarks typically are responding to requests from the schools. Some schools that received funding in the bills, including Clemson University and Case Western Reserve University, had hired lobbyists.
"This has become big business for colleges and universities," Ellis said.
Lawmakers who submitted requests favored new political buzzwords, including explanations that a school's research would reduce dependence on foreign oil, create jobs and transform energy sources. A letter from Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) that seeks money for the University of Central Florida says the school planned to design a new solar-energy conversion system "that will reduce the cost of solar energy by 50 percent in three years." Brown and Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D-Fla.), who joined in that request, won $700,000 for the school.
Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R-Mont.) backed funding for the Center for Zero Emissions Research & Technology in Montana, at Montana State University, Bozeman. In his request, Rehberg said that "the funding would be used to develop and validate zero emission technologies for clean energy production from fossil fuels. This would provide an economic benefit in coal and power producing states, reduce reliance on foreign energy sources, and contribute to a better environment."
Rehberg's argument won a $3 million earmark for the school, one of the larger individual earmarks in the DOE section of the bill.
Conversely, some requests that were fairly prosaic still won funding.
Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), in asking for money for Creighton University in Omaha, explained that "federal funding would allow the university to offer specialized technical training programs in photovoltaics and wind energy to create highly skilled manpower to provide the expertise to develop and implement solar energy." Terry asked for and received a $1.2 million earmark for the school.
The earmarked projects in many cases reflect the interests of the sponsoring lawmakers and their constituents.
Virginia Polytechnic and State University would receive $500,000 for research on technologies "to remove impurities from coal, including ash, sulfur and mercury," according to a letter from Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) to the committee. Boucher, a major supporter of coal, crafted language in the House climate bill funding research on technologies to capture and sequester the fuel's carbon dioxide emissions.
In the Senate, the bigger earmarks include $2 million to the wind energy center at the University of Houston, requested by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas); $2 million to the University of Louisville's Research and Energy Independence Program, requested by Minority Leader McConnell; $1.6 million to the City University of New York Energy Institute, obtained by Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer and Kristen Gillibrand of New York; and $800,000 for solar energy development at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, sought by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).
Majority Leader Reid piled in requests, with 21 earmarks in the DOE section of the bill. He secured $3.2 million for the University of Nevada, Reno, for biodiesel, geothermal and solar research; $1 million to Great Basin College for geothermal research; and $1.2 million for the Alternative Energy School for the Future.
Pro or con?
Analysts are not sure whether the practice of using earmarks to fund college research is good, bad or both.
For the use of taxpayers' money, there should be an "overarching test" asking, "Is this the cleanest, quickest and cheapest way of solving our energy problem?" said Anna Aurelio, director of the Washington office of Environment America. "Those three things would lead us to the best."
Schools in the country with experts considered tops in energy research include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, for overarching issues, said Peter Blair, the National Academies' director of the Division for Engineering and Physical Sciences. In specific energy categories, the University of Minnesota; the University of Chicago; the University of Tennessee; the University of Texas, Austin; the University of Florida; Arizona State University; the University of Utah; Stanford; and the University of California, Los Angeles excel, he said.
"We'd always be in favor of having the best people do the research," Blair said.
At the same time, Blair said, there is an argument for "building the pipeline of expertise, educating scientists and engineers."
"Spreading it might be more beneficial from that point of view," Blair said.
The goal clearly needs to be accelerating development of new energy technologies, said Thernstrom, with the American Enterprise Institute. Beyond that, he is not sure the best route to get there.
"We don't need just one breakthrough," Thernstrom said. "We need one dozen or two dozen or four dozen."
Government laboratories, schools and the private sector all need motivation to act, he said.
"You don't want the government to be picking winners and losers. You want the market to do that," Thernstrom said. Having "an omniscient government agency" providing direction so that groups do not waste money would be helpful, he said. But a big question, he added, is how that should be structured.
"I don't know what the answer is here," Thernstrom said. "We would be very, very lucky as a nation if it happened to be coincidental that the optimal structure for producing good scientific research also happened to be this structure that is politically attractive to Congress. It would be a surprising coincidence."
Using earmarks to fund university research "is a nakedly political process," Thernstrom said. "We might get a good policy outcome out of that. It would be a fortuitous and somewhat improbable coincidence."