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STEM Earmarks in 2023 - Senate

Alongside R&D appropriations, the 2023 budget also includes earmarks, renamed Community Funding Projects (CFP). They were brought back into practice last year after a ten-year hiatus with several new rules to keep them in check, discussed below. The number of earmarks increased this year, with over 4,700 earmarks submitted by the House and 3,100 by the Senate. All earmarks combined added up to more than $8 billion in the House and $7.8 billion in the Senate.

AAAS read through the earmarks for each bill and identified those with a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) focus. This includes, among others, the purchase of new equipment, development or expansion of education programs, funding facility renovations, increasing job training in STEM-heavy fields, and the establishment of entirely new programs or institutions. A brief review of these is below, but you can also see the interactive map to explore these requests for yourself. 

What's an earmark?

Most STEM-relevant federal funding is allocated through grants, contracts, or formulas administered by federal agencies, often after some form of merit review. Earmarks are a way to expedite funding on needed projects by letting legislators direct funding to specific entities.

The practice has historically been controversial, so much so that Congress banned earmarks beginning in 2011. They returned in 2021under a new name and with a set of rules that legislators argue will enhance transparency. Earmarks are now capped at 1% of discretionary spending, each representative can only submit 15, and they cannot be directed toward for-profit entities. Additionally, not every subcommittee can allocate funding towards earmarks, and the agencies and departments whose funding can be allocated are limited as well. This year 10 of the 12 subcommittees were eligible for earmark requests in the House and 9 of 12 in the Senate, though not all contained STEM-relevant items.

How many project requests are STEM-focused?

We analyzed the full list of submitted projects in both the House and Senate for relevance to STEM research, education, workforce development, or infrastructure. For a breakdown the STEM-related earmarks submitted by the House, read our separate explainer.  

In the STEM education and workforce categories, degree programs that have the potential to contribute to research and innovation were counted, which includes many healthcare and manufacturing fields. We excluded projects without a clear and specific STEM focus, which included broad educational programs that did not state a STEM focus, operation and expansion of healthcare facilities that did not have a research purpose, and one-off climate change remediation projects. As one might imagine, there were many borderline cases; we used our judgment as best we could.

Our review turned up 285 projects totaling $942 million in the Senate bill. You can explore them, as well as the earmarks submitted by the House, in this dashboard.

The median project size was $2.8 million, but there was some variability. The Senate doesn’t have a cap on the number of earmarks a member can submit, which resulted in more submissions per member and also larger amounts requested. Though no earmark topped Rep. Michael Waltz’s (R-FL) $97 million  Space Force Base renovations, the largest earmarks was a $76 million construction of a biomedical research building filed by Senator Shelby (R-AL) in the LHHS bill. In the same bill, Senator Shelby has two other university construction earmarks, priced at $50 and $35 million, and Senator Blunt (R-MO) has five, with costs ranging from $8 to $61 million.

The smallest project is a $15 thousand program to teach Girl Scouts about STEM careers and renewable energy submitted by Senators Kaine and Warner (VA).

Which subcommittees received the largest funding requests for earmarks?

A bar graph showing the dollar value and total number of STEM-related earmarks in each subcommittee, in descending order.

Just as in the House, Labor HHS was the largest source of STEM-related earmarks both in terms of number of submissions and total dollar value. The average requested cost of an LHHS earmarks was only marginally above the average across all committees. This may be because LHHS was the source for 55% of all STEM earmarks we identified. Its requests were focused primarily on education and workforce programs related to healthcare fields.

Second was Commerce, Justice and Science, who included higher education building, environmental research and several battery and semiconductor research projects. The average STEM earmark was $2.3 million, under the average across all committees.

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; and 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. Instead, lawmakers generally requested funding for equipment, facilities expansions, or programmatic support of activities that would support research capacity.

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.

A bar graph showing the dollar value and total number of STEM-related earmarks in each project type, in descending order.

As with the House again, the largest number and dollar value of reports were for University and Higher education projects. The nearly $670 million in earmarks include over a dozen multimillion-dollar university construction projects for new STEM laboratory or teaching buildings, equipment purchases, as well as workforce and career education programs.

Environmental research and equipment was the next largest earmark category, with an order of magnitude less funding despite being close to half the number of unique submissions. This category contains primarily environmental studies or equipment purchases.

Authors

Alessandra Zimmermann

Writer/Analyst

Fiona Kniaz