A study released Sunday found the amount of federal grant money lawmakers steered to colleges in their home districts rose 60 percent this year. Critics say the figure shows politicians are more concerned about pet projects than education.

Congress approved $1.7 billion — the largest amount ever — for special projects ranging from renovating laboratories to historical research, according to an analysis by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The amount last year was just over $1 billion.

Critics in the academic community say the directed grants, called earmarks, can be wasteful because lawmakers are interested primarily in their own states and cannot properly evaluate a project's worthiness.

They say allowing schools to compete for the funding through peer review instead would help direct the money to the most deserving school.

"The concern is that the volume of earmarking is becoming so great that it is beginning to crowd out research funding which is awarded on the basis of rather rigorous review," said Peter Smith, spokesman for the Association of American Universities. The Washington, D.C.-based group tracks education issues for 61 research universities.

Lawmakers and school administrators defend the earmarks as a way to strengthen lesser-known schools so they can compete with elite institutions.

The money also supports projects that help the public, lawmakers say. Among the work Congress funded this year were efforts to improve water quality and expand access to health care.

"It's one way Congress has funded very exciting programs that have made great advances in science," said Augustus Cheatham, spokesman for Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, Calif.

The school received $35 million from Congress this year and used part of the money for research on cancer treatment and osteoporosis.

The Chronicle ranked Loma Linda second nationally in the amount of earmark dollars it received. Tops was the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, which received slightly more than $35 million — mainly for a high-performance computer project.

Nine of the 10 states that received the most earmarked funds were represented by lawmakers who led appropriations subcommittees, the Chronicle said.

The University of Maine at Orono, the alma mater of Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican, received $16.2 million for research and other projects, ranking 15th nationally.

"Providing that opportunity for a home state institution is valuable not only because of jobs and investments, but also because it helps to continue to build research capability that can lead to so many good things," Snowe spokesman Dave Lackey said. "There are those who criticize any program that provides funding for a particular state."

Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., which ranked third with $27.6 million in earmarks, is represented by Sen. Robert Byrd, who was the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee and is now the chairman.

The earmarks were approved for fiscal year 2001, which began Oct. 1, as the Republican-controlled Congress debated how to spend the federal surplus, and as many of the lawmakers were facing tough re-election fights.

The Chronicle's annual study is based on data from federal spending legislation and the congressional reports that explain the budget. The report calculated earmarked funds that were not shared with any partners.