Obama’s Earmark Ban Could Ripple Through Northwest Makers of Vaccines, Biofuels, Clean Water Technology

2/24/11Follow @curtwoodward

When most people hear the word “earmark,” they probably think of a bridge to nowhere, gilded Pentagon plumbing fixtures, or a dubious construction project in some fat-cat congressman’s hometown.

But federal earmarks can also fuel innovative research and development in life sciences, high tech, and clean energy—at least, they could until President Obama vowed to veto any of the direct grants in last month’s State of the Union speech.

I thought it would be interesting to see just what kind of spending the president would be cutting off for Washington state’s innovation community, so I put together this list.

It shows 25 projects that were seeking $2 million or more in earmarked spending, and the details are pretty interesting. Among the requests that stood out:

• Seattle’s PATH, a nonprofit global health R&D center, was hoping to get money for an array of projects, including $5 million for work on malaria vaccines and $2 million to develop large “electrochlorinator” devices, which use simple battery power to produce chlorine for purifying drinking water—a major global health concern.

• At Washington State University, researchers were seeking $3 million to support their work on capturing and storing high-energy positrons, $2.5 million for turning algae into biofuels, and up to $5 million to examine the ways that environmental toxin exposure can affect how genes are expressed in children.

• The University of Washington and Vancouver, WA-based Renewable Energy Composite Solutions were each hoping for $4 million or more to advance work on tidal energy technology for the Navy.

A little background for those unfamiliar with Capitol Hill lingo: Earmarks are specific, noncompetitive grants that members of Congress put in the federal budget to make sure dollars flow straight to the projects they want to finance back home.

Earmarks often become a political hot potato, but in reality experts say they only make up about 1 percent or less of the federal budget.

Howard Grimes is a vice president for research at WSU. He says the loss of earmarks isn’t leading to dramatic cuts or shutdown of the projects we listed. But it certainly crimps researchers’ … Next Page »

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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