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Government Spending: Sequencing the Congressional Pork Genome

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What does NASA want with bioinformatics in Buffalo? And what in the world does proteomics research have to do with housing in poor neighborhoods? As every savvy money-raiser knows, the answer can be found in the bewildering process of congressional funding.

Each summer during budget negotiations, members of Congress sneak line items into appropriations bills to fund their favorite local projects. This year’s proposed Housing and Urban Development/Veterans Administration spending bill is no exception.

Alongside projects to build new housing for the elderly and reclaim derelict industrial areas are dollops of cash reserved for a new Alaskan World War II Lend Lease Museum ($500,000), the revitalization of Rolling Mill Road in Nashville, Tenn. ($500,000), and construction of a parking garage in Westbrook, Maine ($250,000).

But one man’s pork is another man’s worthy development project, and this year, genomics researchers are also slated to get their own scraps of the federal pie.

As part of the HUD/VA bill recently passed by the Senate appropriations committee, Buffalo, NY’s nascent bioinformatics center stands to pocket $1 million from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s academic program.

A University of Missouri at Kansas City project to study proteomics in cardiovascular disease is also up for $1 million under the Community Development Block Grant, a HUD program originally founded to ensure affordable housing and expand business development.

Fair enough. But why aren’t these R&D efforts getting their cash through the US National Institutes of Health or the US National Science Foundation?

“The appropriations bills are full of a lot of stuff that’s not particularly related to the subject matter” of the bill, explains Ellen Taylor, policy analyst with OMB Watch, a Washington-based budget watchdog and public-policy group. “That’s part of the wheeling and dealing process that allows the bills to get passed — how deals get made.”

So how can an entrepreneurial genomic scientist looking to fund a new microarray center or sequencing project get a piece of the action? Educate your local congressional representative about the importance of your research, says Taylor.

“It’s really part of the democratic process,” Taylor adds. “In a certain sense, it works.”

— Kathleen McGowan

 

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