The Bay State is falling behind in targeted research dollars

It is no secret that Massachusetts, with its powerhouse universities and academic medical centers, gets more than its share of federal funding for scientific and medical research. The Bay State is one of the top five state recipients of federal research grants, mostly from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. In total, the federal government spent $19.2 billion on academic research in 2001, the most recent year for which statistics are available, and Massachusetts, as one of the primary beneficiaries, has used the federal funding of knowledge production as a key lever for building not only stellar institutions of higher learning but a knowledge-based economy.

But the Massachusetts idea industry loses its bragging rights when it comes to research funds written directly into the federal budget. More than 700 colleges across the country received some $2 billion in funding last year by means of earmarks, or money allocated for specific projects in congressional spending bills, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, a weekly newspaper that focuses on the ivory tower. Despite its academic muscle, Massachusetts came in 19th among the 50 states in 2003, winning just $35 million in earmarked funding.

When it came to individual institutions, only one Massachusetts college finished in the top 100 in these federal set-asides. That was University of Massachusetts­Amherst, which placed 45th, taking home $10.7 million in earmarked grants. That was, in fact, a better showing than in 2002, when Boston University was the Bay State’s top finisher at 111th; UMass­Amherst was next, at 188th. (The Chronicle rankings do not count earmarks that are shared between universities, or between universities and business or government laboratories, unless the dollar amount for each institution was specified. In 2003, MIT did receive two earmarks, one of $7 million, which it shared with Harvard, and another for $6.75 million, shared with nine other institutions.)

‘Pork-barrel’ spending is a growing slice of the federal research pie.
Scientists have long criticized the earmarking process, arguing that federal dollars should be doled out only through government agencies like NIH and NSF, which fund the most worthy investigations based on a peer-review process. Earmarking is a more political way to fund research, and it’s often derided as “pork-barrel” spending. These dedicated funds still represent a small portion of federal research funding–only about 10 percent. But they are a growing slice of the pie. According to the Chronicle, earmarks have grown sixfold in the past seven years, expanding much faster than the federal research investment overall.

Massachusetts has not always fared so poorly in the academic pork barrel. In the mid-1990s, Massachusetts was among the top 10 state recipients of federal research earmarks. But in the last few years the Bay State has slipped, finishing 20th among the states in 2001, 27th in 2002, and 19th last year. Between 1997 and 2000, the state took in an average of $33.3 million per year. Since then, the average Massachusetts take has fallen to $26.7 million.

Massachusetts colleges faired poorly in winning federal earmarked funding for research in 2003, according to a study by the Chronicle of Higher Education of 715 colleges that received funding.
Place Earmarked Funding University
45 $10.7 million University of Massachusetts-Amherst
152 $2.7 million Boston University
165 $2.4 million Brandeis University
224 $1.5 million Harvard University
231 $1.5 million University of Massachusetts-Boston
281 $1.0 million Urban College of Boston
303 $900,000 University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth
313 $900,000 Massachusetts College of Pharmacy & Health Sciences
322 $800,000 Emerson College
362 $700,000 Tufts University
433 $500,000 University of Massachusetts (Central Office)
502 $300,000 Stonehill College
515 $300,000 Boston College
526 $200,000 Suffolk University
549 $200,000 Assumption College
568 $200,000 Mount Wachusett Community College
610 $100,000 University of Massachusetts-Worcester (medical school)
613 $100,000 Salem State College
617 $100,000 Southern New England School of Law
Note: These figures do not include earmarked funding that the recipient university was required to share with other colleges, businesses, or government labs.
SOURCE: Chronicle of Higher Education

That may be because earmarks follow congressional clout, a fact that bodes ill for Massachusetts and its all-Democrat delegation in an era of Republican control. George Washington University professor Steven J. Balla recently completed a study of federal earmarking for higher education that focused on the period following the GOP takeover of the House in 1994. Balla found that the Republican majority distributed earmarked funds widely, but saved the largest grants for districts represented by Republicans.

Hunter Ridgway, chief of staff for US Rep. John Olver, the only member of the House Appropriations Committee from the state, says Massachusetts has no reason to worry about being frozen out of federal research dollars on political grounds. He says that most research funding is awarded through the peer-review process, and therefore insulated from politics. And earmarks are doled out more by seniority than by party, he adds, with high-ranking Democrats, especially US Sen. Ted Kennedy, pulling a lot of weight. A bigger worry, Ridgway says, is that other states are gaining in the chase for research funds on grounds of merit. “It’s a crowded field, so the pie is split up among more worthy winners,” he says.

In 1985, the Bay State received almost 7 percent of all federal research spending, which includes funds going to industry and federal labs, as well as to universities and university-affiliated teaching hospitals, according to a February report by Mass Insight Corp. and the Batelle Memorial Institute. By 2001, the Massachusetts share had slipped to 5.5 percent. The decline in research funding has been more precipitous for colleges and universities. Federal grants to Massachusetts institutions of higher education fell from 11.5 percent of total funding in 1982 to less than 6 percent in 2000.

“We traditionally have assumed we would win our share of projects without organizing as much as other states,” says William Guenther, president of Mass Insight Corp. “We haven’t had a strategy.” Other states have, he says, with state governments providing matching funds for federal investments and encouraging local universities and businesses to enter into partnerships for grant applications. They’ve also focused on building state public universities into top-notch research institutions, something he says Massachusetts has failed to do at UMass, which is only the 42nd largest research university in the United States.

Of course, there’s one other traditional way of getting the most out of the federal budget: lobbying. An increasing number of universities are getting into the lobbying game. Between 1998 and 2001, lobbying fees paid by colleges and universities nationwide nearly doubled, from $23 million to $42 million, while the number of institutions hiring outside guns rose from 191 to 294, according to the Chronicle.

And it works, at least when these institutions have friends on the right congressional committees. A 2002 study by John M. de Figueiredo of MIT and Brian Silverman of the University of Toronto found that working with lobbyists pays off most when universities can also call on senators and representatives on appropriating committees. Indeed, de Figueiredo found that in cases where the lobbyists could call on both a Senate and House appropriations committee member, they were able to return nearly $50 in funding for every $1 in fees.

Massachusetts colleges and universities have generally been slow to jump on the lobbyist bandwagon. Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the state’s largest research universities, have normally shunned lobbying for earmarked funding.

But one institution that has played the lobbying game with gusto is Boston University, which for years has worked with the Washington firm of Cassidy& Associates. BU paid the firm $800,000 in 2003, when the university took in about $2.7 million in earmarked funding, mostly for a research project on photonics, the use of light for applications like data transmission and data storage. Former BU Chancellor John Silber has long advocated earmarking as a way to break the grip of the nation’s most prestigious colleges–including those across the Charles River–on peer-reviewed grants.

UMass-Amherst has never hired a lobbyist but has nailed a few earmarks.

One university that, according to de Figueiredo’s study, would have much to gain from leveraging the advantage of a well-placed representative, UMass­Amherst, has never hired a lobbyist or maintained its own Washington government relations office, as many major state universities do. But with western Massachusetts Congressman Olver, a former UMass professor himself, on the House Appropriations Committee, the state university’s flagship campus has nailed a few earmarks. In 2003, it won funding to study methods of preventing seafood spoilage; pests that damage cranberries and blueberries; and pollution in the Connecticut River Basin, along with funding for the Pioneer Life Sciences Institute, a biomedical-research program with Bay State Medical Center, in Springfield.

Most Massachusetts colleges have shied away from lobbying for federal earmarks. Boston University is the biggest exception.
University Expenditure (2003) Lobbying Firm
Boston University $800,000 Cassidy & Associates
Massachusetts College of Pharmacy & Health Sciences $320,000 Carmen Group
MIT $258,000 In-house Washington office
Worcester Polytechnic Institute $240,000 Cassidy & Associates
Nortern Essex Community College Foundation $200,000 Cassidy & Associates
Brandeis $140,000 Hogan & Hartson
Northeastern $120,000 Hale & Dorr ($40,000)
O’Neill Athy & Casey ($80,000)
Boston College $80,000 Cassidy & Associates
Harvard University $80,000 O’Neill Athy & Casey
Suffolk University $60,000 The Commonwealth Group
Tufts University $60,000 Dutko Group
Curry College $60,000 Holland & Knight ($20,000) and Liberty Square DC ($40,000)
Emerson College $54,000 The National Group
Massachusetts Maritime Academy $40,000 Patton Boggs
Assumption College $18,000 E. Del Smith & Company
Urban College of Boston $10,000 Moss, McGee, Bradley & Foley
SOURCE: Disclosure reports filed with the Senate Office of Public Records.

Lobbyists notwithstanding, Mass Insight’s Guenther says that Massachusetts has made some recent moves that are likely to bolster its position in the race for federal research funds. Late last year, the Romney administration and state lawmakers appropriated $100 million for economic stimulus, with $60 million set aside as matching funds to attract federal investment. Guenther says that he’s seen a “sea change” in the attitude of Massachusetts leaders toward the research-and-development pipeline, both corporate and academic, and that he hopes to see increased funding for UMass along with state-sponsored research collaboratives between Massachusetts universities and businesses.

Meet the Author

Shawn Zeller

Washington Correspondent
“The fact that there is money on the table that needs to be invested is a wonderful focusing device,” says Guenther. Whether it’s enough to shift the outgoing tide of federal research funds remains to be seen.

Washington correspondent Shawn Zeller is a staff correspondent at Government Executive.