Pork and Punishment

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Science  17 Aug 2007:
Vol. 317, Issue 5840, pp. 871
DOI: 10.1126/science.1147818

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The Congress of the United States does some funny things with respect to some scientific projects. It either likes them enough to scoop them out of some priority line and give them special status, or it finds them, well, either dumb or disgusting and declines to give them money that their executive agency has asked for. In the first instance, it finds various ways of funneling federal support to them, often going outside various established procedures for competitive review. In the second case, it amends authorization or appropriation bills to require the removal of particular projects that members dislike for some reason or another.

We have long experience with both habits. The first has become so familiar that it has a pet name: pork, short for "pork-barrel funding," a term that first received public notice in the late 19th century, when individual members would compete for river and harbor projects. The process by which pork is actually distributed is "earmarking," after the practice of notching the ears of livestock to claim ownership. In the development of a research agency's budget, a member will specify a support line for a building, project, or research facility at an institution in the member's district; because the budget is limited, this means that funds will be diverted from projects that had been competitively approved.