For a change, Congress Critter goes after the NSF awardees

Dec 02 2010 Published by under Call yer CongressCritter, Conduct of Science, NSF

There is a long tradition of Congressional members trying to whip up a little support from their base by going after federally funded extramural research projects of the NIH. I have described some of this here and here.

You will note the trend, this has by and large been an effort of socially conservative Republican Congress Critters to attack projects that focus on issues of sexual behavior, drug taking, gender identity, homosexuality, etc. We know this is their focus because despite talking about "waste" of federal money they make no effort to realistically grapple with cost/benefit. No doubt because in their view the only necessary solution to behavioral health issues is "Stop it! If you can't then you must be morally inferior and do not deserve any public concern".

You will also note that they don't really mean it in many cases. You'll see this blather when they know they have no chance of getting the votes. In a prior case I reviewed, the complainers identified cancer as being a "real" concern worthy of funding, and then picked on a cancer-related project. A long while back when I first got interested (and I can't remember the specific details- it was a psychology type grant on beautifying dorm rooms or something), the Congress Critter's amendment specified an existing specific grant year- there was no way that I could see that the funds can be retrieved in such a situation. So you could see where much of this is just naked political posturing with no intent of actually doing anything. But still...it continues the anti-science environment and political memery. So we should address it.

Cackle of Rad has tipped us to a new effort by Rep Eric Cantor (R; VA) and Adrian Smith (R; NE) to invite you, the public, to identify NSF projects that irritate you. One assumes they think the public should be allowed to vote the projects out of funding.

Now, admittedly, I find the specific examples to be refreshing and new

Recently, however NSF has funded some more questionable projects - $750,000 to develop computer models to analyze the on-field contributions of soccer players and $1.2 million to model the sound of objects breaking for use by the video game industry.

Not a sign of a social issue and, gasp, are they really criticizing corporate pork? Admittedly the video game industry is not traditionally an ally of social conservatives (Grand Theft Auto anyone? hmm, maybe this requires some additional thought) but still.

Okay, so what are my two biggest objections to this practice.

First, the basic-science issue. It has been discussed before extensively on blogs. All clinical applications, medical devices, drugs, etc, are rooted in prior basic science that stretches back for decades and in cases centuries. We cannot get to new treatments in the future without laying the groundwork of basic understanding of healthy and diseased function of the human, the mammal, the vertebrate, the animal, the alive, the Earth-ian. Therefore the application of much of the present basic science work cannot be confidently asserted at the time it is being conducted. Sure, we pursue a general idea and can make some predictions about where it might apply but the history suggests that it is often a fortuitous inference, surprising connection or unlooked-for application of existing knowledge that creates a new therapy.

Non-biological research and design differs very little in this regard. Many new products and applications are built on the discoveries and innovations that came from basic (and applied, admittedly) science that came before.

It is a big mistake to allow persons who do not understand this to make the tactical decisions on what should and should not be funded. By tactical, of course, I mean the specific projects. I have less problem with Congress weighing in on general priorities, such as swings from focus on breast cancer to AIDS to Alzheimer's to diabetes or whatever. We have to accept, in the sciences, that there will be some degree of this prioritization that will not respect each of our own parochial research interests.

Just so long as we don't have wholesale prevention of research into major categories of health concern, that is...

My second objection to the democratic approach is the cost/benefit analysis objection. Not that it is my role to do such cost/benefit but the system as a whole should be sensitive to this. To a rational knowledge that, for example, if we create a new drug which lets an Alzheimer's patient live at home for 9 mo longer, stave off the need for in-home professional help for 12 mo and/or transition to low-intensity hospice later..well this is going to save a lot of money on a population basis. Not least because then they might, statistically, die of a stroke or heart attack or some other normal condition more frequently before they go into the intensive phase of managing end stage Alzheimer's.

The argument for corporate welfare for new products of a non-health nature is really no different. Spend money now to reap bigger savings later.

It's called "investment", yo!

And I don't really see where little 'd' democracy at a tactical level helps out with deciding what to invest in for the future.

11 responses so far

  • Rob Knop says:

    One must also consider the fact that the NSF is 0.2% of the Federal budget. If you really care abour fiscal responsibility, going after the NSF is a huge waste of time.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Word. Yet more evidence they are just blowing smoke for craven political gain.

    Anyone interested in this might want to take a look see the history of NSF funding ($6.9B last FY) and the history of NIH funding ($30.9B lat FY).

    A RAND report (PDF) indicates annual direct unit costs are about $100M (FY 98 dollars) per year to operate each Nimitz class aircraft carrier. I can't make out from this appendix if all the other categories are part of this or should be added but it gives us a ballpark. The US had 6 of these carriers at the time the report was prepared, apparently. Looks like the F18 jets that fly off these babies go for a cool $60M and I'm sure the annual upkeep on those ain't cheap.

    Your basic full modular R01 grant from the NIH is $250K in direct costs with ~55% overhead at most public Universities- $387.5K per year; almost $2M over 5 years.

  • pinus says:

    But...cutting 'defense' is unamerican! We need all of those war machines!

  • CD0 says:

    It’s the arrogance of the ignorant. They want to exterminate what they do not understand.
    They are not scientists, they probably do not know any scientist and they do not care about science until they get cancer. Then they trend to become supporters of NCI.
    The worst is that they pretend to be cleverer and more knowledgeable than the person who has spent the last 20 years pursuing an elusive finding. It is easy to ridicule something that you do not get when you talk to people who do not get it either: “Ha, they are feeding warms and flies with our money” That would be a typical comment by some “Fox Opinions” commentators. How can you explain to them that some of the most relevant genetic pathways that drive cancer in humans were first identified in these models?
    Then they find very patriotic to waste billions in investigating microorganisms that only exist in military laboratories. Not real infections that kill people (that’s a ridiculous waste in their mind), but imaginary threats that have only proven dangerous when some extremist on the right has released them to prove their case.
    Dark times are ahead.

  • Based on CD0's comment ... why not slash cancer funding? If more people die of cancer, they drop off the Social Security rolls quicker, which is a total win. We may take a hit in Medicare expenses ... but that can easily be rectified by a "death panel" or two.

  • Joe Hanson says:

    I think taking this seriously as a funding target is off-base. I maintain that this is being used as a wedge issue more than anything. Those citizen submissions will likely never go anywhere, but it provides ammo for the impending division between the new GOP House and Obama's agenda and their attacks on climate science and stem cells.

    Anything they can find will make great talking point fodder for hearings, but not much more. I think that's even more dangerous.

  • I find this sort of thing positively infuriating. This reminds me of the Fox news bru ha ha a few months ago where they started attacking stimulus funds that went to entomologists at MSU.

    The really stupid thing about this kind of pitchforking is that it completely misses the fact that funding science and technology research is what drives our economy, and gives us a competitive edge over other countries in the marketplace. (See also Thomas Friedman's latest). It's not just "basic science" that we need to fund, it's also the stuff on the edge.

  • bacillus says:

    CDO. Out of curiosity what microorganisms do you believe only exist in military laboratories? As far as I'm aware all biodefense pathogens, except smallpox, exist in nature, several of them in the USA.

  • CD0 says:

    Bacillus,
    the specific interest of these programs is in microorganisms that are modified to serve as weapons (hence the euphemism biodefense). Weaponized microorganisms do not exist in nature, do we agree on that?
    For instance, Bacillus anthracis exists in nature and causes rare although potentially lethal infections. But, in the eyes of certain politicians, it became dangerous for the general public when some right extremist took weaponized spores generated for biological warfare in very sophisticated laboratories and send them in envelops through regular mail. Biodefense programs were implemented to respond to weaponized microorganisms precisely after this incident. The goal has never been responding to natural infections, but responding to an unlikely biological warfare intervention.

    In contrast, we know that influenza will sooner or later came naturally in the form of a devastating pandemia, but we are still producing every vaccine in an egg at a painfully slow rate.
    And we do not have effective vaccines against HIV, TBC or malaria, which kill hundreds of thousands of people every year. In a natural manner, without military manipulation.

  • bacillus says:

    CDO,
    Thank you for the clarification. As for biodefense spending by NIH, I thought this was new earmarked money that NIH would not otherwise have received? Additionally, like ARRA funding, it has provided a useful lifeline to many microbiologists, immunologists, etc. Moreover, it's not as if all of their findings are specific to the bugs they are studying. I realize that these are desperate times, but turning on each other is the last thing we need right now, however tempting it might seem. I appreciate that there are much more pressing infectious diseases to tackle, but in the cases you mention, a lack of funding is not the major barrier to progress, it's an inability to create vaccines that elicit protective immune responses. Vaccine related work on other pathogens could provide valuable insights to help resolve this impasse.

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