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A Look at STEM-Focused Projects in House Earmark Requests

This year, Congress has decided to bring back the practice known as earmarking, in which legislators insert spending for specific institutions and projects into spending bills or report language. That decision has resulted in nearly 3,000 earmark requests, amounting to nearly $6 billion, submitted to House appropriators by their colleagues (parallel Senate figures have not yet been released, as of the week of May 17).

Out of these requests, AAAS found dozens directly relevant to the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) enterprise, covering the purchase of new equipment, K-12 programs, facility renovations, job training in STEM-heavy fields, or even the establishment of entirely new programs or institutions. A brief review of these is below; see the interactive map on this page to explore these requests for yourself. 

What's an earmark?

Most STEM-relevant federal funding is allocated through grants, contracts, or formulas administered by the agencies, often after some form of merit review. Earmarks are a way to get around these processes by letting legislators direct funding to specific entities for particular projects and purposes.

The practice has historically been controversial, so much so that Congress banned earmarks beginning in 2011. They've now returned, but under a different name ("community funding requests") and with a set of rules that legislators argue will enhance transparency. Proponents say the return of earmarks in this new form will help move the appropriations process along by giving legislators reasons to buy in. Some also argue earmarks can help smaller research institutions compete for funding with larger institutions that have greater advantages garnering federal grants. Opponents argue the practice can result in wasteful or ineffective spending, bypasses any chance for merit review, and places additional administrative burdens and costs on the federal bureaucracy.

How many project requests are STEM-focused?

We searched the full list of 2,887 projects with text terms like "research," "STEM," and "innovation." We included a wide range of proposals, such as funding to build or expand lab space; establishing middle school STEM education programs; and establishing business incubators in connection with a STEM park or innovation campus. We excluded projects without a clear and specific STEM focus, which meant leaving out things like general redevelopment projects, transit infrastructure, or health services funding. As one might imagine, there were many borderline cases; we used our judgment as best we could.

Our review turned up 195 projects totaling $399 million. You can explore them in this dashboard.

The median project size is $1.0 million on the nose, but there's quite a variance. The smallest we tracked is $34,465 requested by Rep. Susie Lee (D-NV) for simulator technology at the Nevada State College School of Nursing. The biggest is a request for $40 million from Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) to partially fund the creation of a new center for precision agriculture under the Agricultural Research Service in partnership with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Which subcommittees received the largest funding requests for earmarks?

 

Requested earmark funding for each subcommittee and spending bill is displayed above. Note that House appropriators excluded several large R&D funding accounts from consideration for earmarks, including, for instance, all the major R&D accounts in the Energy & Water bill, which funds the Department of Energy. This is why the Energy & Water bill does not show up above.

The Agriculture appropriations bill is the largest target for STEM-focused requests by dollar value. This is specifically because appropriators kept the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Buildings and Facilities account eligible for earmarks. As a result, the three largest requests are all directed to the Ag bill: the Fortenberry request mentioned above; a $35.1 million request from Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA) to fund facilities construction for the ARS Sugarcane Research Unit in Houma, Louisiana; and a $24 million request from Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) for a new ARS germplasm research center in partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Madison. ARS facilities are also the subject of several other requests; use the dashboard to explore these.

The Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education (Labor HHS) bill received the largest number of individual requests, ranging across several topics including school STEM programs, vocational / technical training, higher medical education, and advanced  research equipment. Many of these programs explicitly emphasize underserved populations. The largest Labor HHS request, from Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), is for $13.5 million to establish a PET/Cyclotron Center at Florida International University.

A breakdown by project category

We further organized projects into categories based on the type and purpose of the project, including research capacity and equipment for defense, agricultural, or medical research; economic development; or multiple categories of STEM education projects. None of these perfectly map onto the subcommittees cited above. It's also important to note that few requests proposed direct funding of basic research projects. Generally, lawmakers requested funding for equipment and facilities that would support research capacity instead.

For those that straddle multiple categories, we again used our best judgment. The breakdown by total funding requested is below. These categories also appear in the dashboard.

 

The vast majority of requests were related to agricultural science, coming in at $121.6 million, which is to be expected given the large appropriations pot for ARS facilities mentioned above. Life science / medical followed agriculture. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the largest requests in both of these categories have been mentioned above: Fortenberry’s precision agriculture center (agriculture) and Wasserman Schultz’s PET/Cyclotron Center (life / medical).

STEM education also received a hefty portion of requested funding: public engagement, K-12, university / higher ed, and other STEM education requests together totaled $121.5 million. University and higher ed proposals accounted for the greatest portion of this funding. The largest individual request was from Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI): $9.6 million for an advanced manufacturing, engineering technology, and apprenticeship center at Mid-State Technical College. The largest K-12 request, submitted by Rep. Charlie Crist (D-FL), proposed a $4 million renovation of a hands-on science center. Many other education-related requests specifically centered on the STEM workforce pipeline, and reaching populations historically underrepresented in STEM.

Authors

Matt Hourihan

Director

Gwendolyn Bogard

Government Relations Associate