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Pork-Barrel Fat Pads NASA Budget

THE National Aeronautics and Space Administration's new budget is lean and mean. Some long-planned NASA projects are terminated, delayed, or curtailed. But those who read the details in the budget as voted by Congress can find a list of goodies they might not expect to be there.How about $20 million for the Christopher Columbus Center for Marine Research in Baltimore? NASA officials may not have realized they are in the oceanography business, but they're in it now. The money goes to the home district of Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland. She tried and failed to sneak this tidbit into the National Oceanic and Atmospheric budget last year. But since she chairs NASA's Senate appropriations subcommittee, she had no trouble getting it into orbit with the space agency this year. Never mind that Congress also trimmed the space-shuttle operating budget to the point where NASA officials wonder if they can make full use of the new orbiter Endeavor when it debuts next yea r. It's academic pork-barrel season once again. Some representatives and senators are sending money to the folks back home in the guise of worthy scientific projects, even though no qualified scientist has assessed their merits. This has become an annual ritual since the practice began a decade ago. And critics - including this columnist - have just as regularly denounced it as damaging to the strength and quality of the United States scientific enterprise. That damage has grown over the years. It is particularly bad this time for NASA, given the severe tradeoffs that went into its new budget. So even though it has become an old story, the practice of congressional earmarking of scientific funding needs to be strongly condemned again. Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D) of California has delivered some of the most damning criticism. NASA's budget contains some $137 million of pork-barrel projects, which, Mr. Brown said, "were never requested by the administration, never authorized, and never discussed on the floor [of Congress]." Speaking as chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, he noted in addressing Congress that the debate over the space station was "historic" because it involved "a major decision on whether we could afford [it] ... when so many other programs were in dire need of funding." He added, "We were never given the choice between the station and these [pork-barrel] projects. These appear in the NASA portion of the budget, but some can scarcely be called space projects." On the other hand, he said that major approved projects that were curtailed or eliminated "could have been funded" if money had not been squandered on pork. Brown commissioned a Congressional Research Service study of the entire federal budget. This turned up a total of $509 million in money earmarked for science and university projects that bypassed merit review. These personal projects of senators and representatives are not harmless, as NASA's experience shows. Long-developing projects such as the orbiting solar observatory, which was canceled, represent major career commitments by scientists. Loss of such projects is more than a disappointment for these scientists. This is a tragic waste of talent that erodes the country's scientific strength. Pork-barrel projects don't necessarily achieve the grand national goals their sponsors claim, as the journal Science found in reviewing several of them. Columbia University, for example, used $23.7 million it received for a National Center for Chemical Research - one of the first pork-barrel projects - to renovate its chemistry building, according to Science. It quotes chemistry professor Nick Turro as saying, "I don't know what the phrase 'National Center' really means." He added that "the university had to figure out some way of getting funds." Brown and his colleague Rep. Robert Walker (R) of Pennsylvania have vowed to find ways to curb this abuse. Let's wish them well.

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