U.S. Sen. Nelson Presents Role of Earmarks in Research During Address to Students

Renee Ballenger

U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) addressed the topic of earmarks recently in front of an audience of about 100 students on the UNK campus, emphasizing this form of state funding as a valuable and legitimate way of giving Congress a say in how federal funds are distributed.

In fact, he said that the process of earmark funding is a rigorous, well-vetted open process. He outlined how the earmark process is not just one person’s decision, but rather, an overt way of shifting who controls this kind of spending from the executive branch, through the federal departments, to the congressional branch—all so that a broader audience can be served.

Earmarks affect a spectrum of industries and causes. In his presentation, Sen. Nelson highlighted how in the case of universities, especially in Nebraska which he has dubbed the Silicon Prairie, earmarks are facilitating the state’s high-tech research projects to be part of the solution to worldwide dilemmas.

One such signature project is the potentially worldchanging solar energy research being conducted by UNK chemistry faculty Drs. Scott Darveau and Chris Exstrom. In collaboration with their colleagues Drs. Rod Soukup and Natale Ianno at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln and a cohort of undergraduate students, Drs. Darveau and Exstrom may significantly improve the country’s energy independence by means that are environmentally – conscious.

Dr. Exstrom said that a project like this—that is, creating a solar cell film up to 60 percent more efficient in energy conversion than current solar energy choice–has never been attempted. The team is using nanoscience methods to explore how to develop new films in the copper indium diselenide family that have the potential to exceed current records in energy conversion efficiency and voltage generation.

The films may reach 25 percent film efficiency, which would represent a major leap forward in the renewable energy field. The world-record, Dr. Exstrom noted, is 19.6 percent. The new approach may also improve the efficiency of solar arrays used to generate electricity where access to the power grid is not possible, such as with satellites or in remote locations. The research team expects their work to be ready for commercial use in about 10 years.

Chancellor Doug Kristensen echoed Sen. Nelson’s comments, saying that the solar research occurring at UNK is cutting-edge technology and, potentially, a provider of green energy for the future. He further noted that without the earmark process, this world-class research would not be possible for UNK experts or students. Because of the efforts of Sen. Nelson and the Nebraska delegation, and the opportunity of earmark funding, a global issue may be solved by research conducted on the UNK campus.

According to Sen. Nelson, those who call earmark funding wasteful spending have “just missed the mark.” Opponents to earmarks, he said, use negative wording such as “pork barrel spending,” to label the process in a way that distorts the motives of those involved as well as the potential of positive results. Moreover, he said, cutting out earmarks would not reduce federal spending, because the monies will be spent one way or another.