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A Deeper Dive Into Earmarks in the Omnibus

When Congress adopted the FY 2022 omnibus, they didn’t just enact annual appropriations; they also enacted earmarks for the first time in a decade. Known variously as Congressionally Directed Spending or Community Project Funding, the grand earmark total amounted to $9 billion allocated across nearly 5,000 individual projects.

Continuing our efforts from earlier in the appropriations cycle, AAAS identified 364 earmarks in the omnibus that are relevant to the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) enterprise, the details of which are available on our dashboard. These range from STEM education to new research facilities and programs. A recap of these follows.

Wait, What Are Earmarks Again?

Earmarks are funding for specific projects and recipients that legislators insert directly into spending bills. Earmarks were a source of controversy and have been under moratorium since 2011 – until now. They did not return without changes, however: new rules were instituted for the submission of earmarks to boost transparency, though these rules differ a bit between the House and Senate. Overall, the requests must be posted online, are limited to nonprofit organizations, and cannot be a project in which the legislator has a personal or financial stake. Additionally, the total spending cannot be greater than 1% of discretionary spending.

How did Earmarks Impact Agency Toplines?

Earmarks are a component of the total appropriations that the various agencies received, so it is useful to know how much was specifically allocated to projects. The following figure shows the budgetary increase to the account that was approved in the FY 2022 Omnibus, with the total monetary value of the earmarks overlaid in blue, as well as the percentage that those earmarks represent of the agency’s year-over-year increase.

Earmarks were introduced under the accounts of several research-based agencies. Notably, National Institute of Standards and Technology received $125 million in earmarks, totaling 13.3% of its FY 2022 budget and eating up much of the $196 million increase in appropriations from the previous year. The Department of Education’s Higher Education Programs also received a significant amount in earmarks, $249 million, for school programs, scholarships and workforce initiatives across the country.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) received almost $90 million in earmarks for its Operations, Research, and Facilities (ORF) account, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) saw $62 million in earmarks.

STEM-Relevant Earmarks Highlights by Bill

Not all of the earmarks that make up those totals are identifiably relevant to science. In our review of earmarks, STEM relevance was determined by searching for the use of terms such as ‘science’, ‘research’, or ‘innovation’ in the earmark’s description, and we used our best judgement on borderline cases.

The following figure shows the dollar amount of the earmarks AAAS has identified as STEM-relevant in each committee, as well as the percentage of total earmarks that represents. The STEM-relevant earmarks are categorized based on the appropriations subcommittee that approved them. In addition, we assigned each earmark to a project category, such as Higher STEM Ed or Defense Research & Equipment, for instance. These subjective categories are also visible in our dashboard.

Labor, Health and Human Services (LHHS) had the largest number of STEM-relevant earmarks as identified by AAAS, as well as the largest total sum ($310 million). The STEM-relevant earmarks covered a breadth of topics: from student outreach, workforce development, and university infrastructure in the K-12, University/Higher and Other STEM Ed Categories, to research capacity building projects in the Life Science and Medical Category. These STEM-relevant earmarks only made up 18% of the total earmarks in LHHS overall.

The Commerce, Justice and Science subcommittee has $211 million in earmarks across projects that were funded under NIST, NOAA and NASA accounts. STEM-relevant projects made up 38% of the CJS earmarks. Projects in this bill covered a range of categories, from Defense, Life Science, and Eco/Environmental Research and Equipment to STEM education activities at the K-12 and University/Higher Ed levels, as well as broader Public Engagement.

The earmarks that were filed under the defense subcommittee were all STEM-relevant, since the only defense account that accepted requests was the Research, Development, Test and Evaluations accounts. The defense earmarks ranged across all categories, with many projects centered around building cybersecurity infrastructure or military health research.

The STEM-relevant earmarks in the Department of Transportation involved community projects that fell primarily into the Economic Development category, through others were present as well. The projects aimed to improve science centers, introduce automation to business owners, and make improvements to technology parks with the intent to improve job outcomes in their area.

Largest Projects

The largest earmark in LHHS was the construction of a new biomedical research building at the University of Alabama-Birmingham totaling $76 million, followed by a $50 million endowment at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa for the recruitment of exception science and engineering faculty. Both were submitted by Sen. Shelby.  

The Largest earmark in CJS bill was the $60 million for the expansion of healthcare education and research facilities at the University of South Alabama College of Medicine, submitted by Sen. Shelby. The University of Maine also received $10 million for infrastructure to push the boundaries of advanced manufacturing, submitted by Sen. Collins, and another $10 million was granted for the construction of the Burlington Aviation Tech Center, submitted by Sen. Leahy.

Agriculture’s STEM-relevant earmarks are dominated by one large line item totaling $39.7 million to create the Climate Resilience and Biomanufacturing Initiative at the ARS National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, requested by Sen. Baldwin and Rep. Pocan. Rep. Graves submitted the second largest earmark, a $10 million expansion to the ARS’s Sugarcane Research Unit in Louisiana.

The largest projects in the defense earmarks were $4 million for the Assessing and Tracking Tactical Forces Initiative at UNC Chapel Hill that aims to continue research into brain health in special operations forces, submitted by Rep. Price, and nearly $4 million for the Center for Excellent in Military Health and Performance Enhancement at the LSU Pennington Center, submitted by Rep. Graves.

Energy and Water’s STEM-relevant earmarks were focused on increasing research capacity, from the $10 million development of a hurricane-tracking model at the University of Louisiana submitted by Rep. Higgins and Sen. Cassidy to $5 million data-gathering projects through the Bureau of Reclamation submitted by Sen. Merkley and Sen. Wyden.

The Military Construction and Veterans Affairs earmarks were dominated by $17.2 million towards the building of a new engineering center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, submitted by Sen. Schumer and Sen. Gillibrand.

The largest earmark in the Transportation bill was a $3 million revitalization of the Griffiss Business and Technology Park, the Air Force Research Laboratory, and the Marcy Nanocenter, submitted by Rep. Tenney. The construction of the Da Vinci Science Center, a STEAM education facility submitted by Rep. Wild, and the renovation of the St. Petersburg Science Center, submitted by Rep. Crist, also were granted $3 million.


Alessandra Zimmermann

Writer / Analyst

Matt Hourihan