Pork pares research

NOAA climate-study projects hurt by federal earmarking

A 50 percent budget cut is delaying upgrades for supercomputers for modeling hurricanes and improving storm prediction.

An effort to understand how much of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide the United States generates is limping along because of a 30 percent cut.

The sole U.S. civilian laboratory dedicated to monitoring and predicting solar storms, which can knock out communications satellites and trigger power blackouts, is running on 44 percent less money than in 2005.

Patricia Lang, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration`s Global Monitoring Division in Boulder, measures gases from sample bottles collected from Easter Island, Chile. The bottles` contents are measured for amounts of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases. Although this decades-old program is continuing, her group`s budget was cut 30 percent this year. Daily Camera/Paul Aiken.

With the war in Iraq costing more than $4.5 billion a month and entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security on the rise, times are tough for federal "discretionary" programs, which include everything from scientific research to the FBI.

But several National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration initiatives in Boulder are less victims of shrinking budgets than of political horse-trading that increasingly threatens the long-term health of strategic U.S. science programs, some scientists and policy-makers say.

Some of the nation's core climate- research efforts, based in Boulder, have seen their budgets cut an average of 15 percent this year, lab officials say. That's far more than the 8.2 percent drop in NOAA's overall research budget, which fell from about $414 million in 2005 to $380 million this year.

Earmarking science

Earmarking, known technically as "directed spending" and sometimes derisively as "pork," has been around since the earliest days of the republic. It involves legislators directing specific projects to their districts without giving the responsible federal agencies a say.

In its "2006 Congressional Pig Book," released last week, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Citizens Against Government Waste reported 9,964 earmarks it regards as pork, worth $29 billion this year. That's up from 958 such earmarks worth $12.5 billion in 1996.

"If you're generating earmarks for districts directed into projects and the investment is well-supported, that's the way Congress has operated for 200 years," said U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, D-Eldorado Springs.

But it is an imperfect system, as the well-publicized story of the Alaskan "bridges to nowhere" demonstrated last year. Alaskan Republican Don Young tucked about $450 million in earmarks for two bridges into a transportation bill. One would be longer than the Golden Gate and connect a rural town of 8,900 and an island of 50.

With the strategic Eisenhower interstate system long completed, money for an Alaskan project might mean fewer new lanes in Florida. But it's different with science, where earmarks can affect the long-term health of a taxpayer-funded, multibillion-dollar federal research program.

Earmarking takes the job of prioritizing research away from lab directors and makes it "almost entirely political," said Roger Pielke Jr., director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado.

"Science has a long track record of being merit-based," Pielke said. "Earmarking pits jobs and moving money against excellence, and we shouldn't be surprised when excellence suffers when that occurs."

Science-related earmarking has hit Colorado hard this year. The Golden-based National Renewable Energy Laboratory suffered a $28 million budget shortfall due to congressional earmarking, which included money for such projects as geothermal heating for an Ohio equestrian center.

The earmarks meant 32 layoffs at the country's top renewable-energy lab, despite increasing political interest in energy independence. The U.S. Department of Energy restored about $5 million of the money on the eve of President Bush's visit to the lab in February. The workers were rehired, but programs remain hobbled, NREL officials said.

NOAA's budget cuts have received less attention.

Cuts to NOAA

The Bush administration and both the House and Senate versions of spending bills requested $13 million for NOAA's High Performance Computing & Communications office. The budget ended up being halved compared to last year's.

The cut happened in a conference committee in November, where a cadre of senators and House members hashed out differences in the legislative bodies' separate bills. A 212-page conference report then went to the House and Senate for an up-or-down vote. There was no explanation for the cut.

"It was killed in conference, which is very tough to deal with," said Alexander "Sandy" MacDonald, acting director of NOAA's Earth Systems Research Laboratory in Boulder, which oversees six NOAA atmospheric research divisions.

The Boulder supercomputers are key tools in improving forecasters' ability to predict weather in general, and severe storms and hurricanes in particular. The cuts came less than three months after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast.

MacDonald said NOAA has delayed an upgrade of the supercomputers for nine months and hopes the same cuts don't happen again in 2007.

The same conference report channeled $10.3 million in earmarks to nine programs, money that would otherwise go straight to NOAA.

The conference report offers little hint of what those nine earmarks mean and no mention of their legislative sponsors. One line item, for $1 million, says simply: "Univ of AL Huntsville Climate Research." Another, also for $1 million, reads: "Drought Research Study."

University of Alabama at Huntsville professor John Christy said the climate research involves installing weather stations that will report hourly weather information throughout Alabama.

They relate to the study of climate, generally a long-term affair, in that the stations will provide such information for decades, he said.

Christy said the drought study would assess how irrigation could boost corn production in a state that must import from the Midwest 95 percent of the grain consumed by its 1 billion chickens.

"My feeling is that we were provided with this funding because we were going to make a tremendous contribution to the state of Alabama with it," Christy said.

Such projects are a rounding error compared to earmarks at NASA, which totaled $271 million. But they had a big impact in Boulder. James Butler, deputy director of NOAA's Global Monitoring Division here, said his division's budget is down an average of 15 percent this year.

Among its activities, the lab monitors carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that scientists believe are causing global warming. The division's Carbon Cycle Greenhouse Gases group, the world's foremost monitor of global carbon-dioxide levels for a half-century, saw its budget slashed 30 percent.

Butler said among the programs the group is paring back is a network of sensors on radio towers and in small aircraft to study how much carbon dioxide land and vegetation absorbs versus how much the nation's collective smokestacks and tailpipes emit.

"This is critical. If we're going to learn about how we're increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we need to know this," Butler said.

NOAA's Chemical Sciences Division in Boulder also faces a 15 percent budget cut, said scientist Richard Lataitis. He said a program focusing on California's torrential rains to connect weather and climate phenomena was cut from $450,000 to about $50,000.

NOAA's Space Environment Center saw its budget drop from $7.2 million to $4 million in the congressional conference report, said Ron Zwickl, the center's acting director. The center monitors and develops systems to forecast solar storms that can wreak havoc with satellite communications and electric utilities.

He said the center is coping without layoffs this year but that another year of such cuts would be "nearly fatal."

"If you lose people - these are people with 10, 20, 30 years' experience - you just can't replace them. It's permanent," Zwickl said.

But NOAA also benefits from earmarking. Jim Meagher, NOAA's air-quality program manager, said the earmarks for air-quality studies in New England and Tennessee have kept many NOAA scientists busy.

Earmarking "is a process you can argue about it's benefits or problems, but some of them have been ways to get critical NOAA programs funded," Meagher said.

Shrinking budgets magnify the impact of earmarks.

"I think it's not per se earmarking, but the overall fiscal climate to blame," said Steven Gallagher, NOAA's budget director. "Defense and homeland security funding is the priority, so other accounts in discretionary spending are feeling some of the brunt of that."

"We continue to be a priority among many priorities," Gallagher said.

More money woes ahead

The 2007 presidential budget request would cut NOAA's research money another 8.2 percent, to $349 million.

NOAA scientists won't be raising a ruckus. Federal employees are forbidden from lobbying.

"There has been no public outcry because the stakeholder groups are small, but the impacts are enormous," Udall said.

He said transportation bills have scores of interests standing up for a piece of the pie, including municipalities, states and powerful players in the trucking and automotive industries.

Given the political realities of Congress, Udall said complaining about earmarks is a sensitive issue: "How do I do it in such a way that there's no retaliation in the next budget cycle?" Udall asked.

He said the earmarking process needs structural change to make the decisions less personal, more transparent in terms of their purpose and their congressional sponsor, and subject to an individual vote on their own merits.

The lobbying reform bill the Senate passed 90-8 on March 29 addresses earmarks. The bill does require that "the essential governmental purpose for the earmark" and the name of the legislator backing it be published at least 24 hours before a vote on conference reports.

"It's better than nothing," Udall said.

CU's Pielke said universities should also take action against certain earmarking. He cited the University of Michigan as an example of an institution with strict policies that limit earmarking.

"I don't see Congress necessarily making a distinction between a science project and a road project," Pielke said. "So it's up to the universities on this issue."

On a Web page explaining its policy, Michigan officials say scientific earmarking "wastes taxpayer money and slows the scientific progress that would be made if the same sums were allocated on a merit basis."

"It's something I've pushed at the University of Colorado," Pielke said. "It hasn't gotten legs so far."