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Jun 15, 2012 (Vol. 32, No. 12)

Waste and Abuse in Federal Research Funding

Government Agencies Cry Poor While Squandering Resources

  • Using Resources Effectively

    The point is that there is both obvious and subtle waste and abuse in federal funding agencies that give away huge amounts of taxpayer dollars for science and technology—NSF’s annual budget is now over $7 billion.

    As Allan Leshner, the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, wrote in a November Science editorial about these times of tightened federal budgets, “When resources are constrained, it is essential that they be used effectively and efficiently to avoid losing scientific momentum and to ensure that society will benefit maximally from S&T’s potential...The impact of impending cuts can be at least partially mitigated by some fundamental rethinking of the ways in which S&T are both funded and conducted.”

    Leshner is right, and the “soft and sloppy” science projects at NSF—a large percentage of which are funded by its Social, Behavioral and Economics Directorate—would be an obvious place to begin that rethinking. Its programs need to be both trimmed and reorganized. According to a former senior NSF official, “When the social sciences grants were part of the Biology Directorate they were embedded in a culture of scientific rigor and in competition with strong science. When they split off on their own the inmates took over the asylum and their world became quite insular.”


    The same phenomenon gives rise to similar waste and abuse at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The Center’s mission is “to define, through rigorous scientific investigation, the usefulness and safety of complementary and alternative medicine interventions and their roles in improving health and health care.” The problem is that many of their projects are trivial, and the interventions tested have proven for the most part to be worthless. A recent study found, for example, that cranberry juice cocktail was no better than placebo at preventing recurring urinary tract infections.

    Worst of all is a $60-plus million, multi-center study, the Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy (TACT), conducted under the aegis of NCCAM and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, to investigate the effects of disodium EDTA (a chemical that chelates, or binds, molecules so that they can be removed from a system) on coronary artery disease (CAD). The likelihood that this study will yield positive results approaches zero.

    Perhaps because the trial was “requested” by two powerful members of Congress, NIH pursued it in spite of the fact that chelation therapy had been discredited by four controlled trials performed during the 1990s.

    Even the NIH concedes that “there is a lack of adequate prior research to verify EDTA chelation therapy’s safety and effectiveness for CAD. The bulk of the evidence supporting the use of EDTA chelation therapy is in the form of case reports and case series.” As NIH officials must know, however, there is an old saying in science that the plural of anecdote is not data.

    An exhaustive independent analysis of the TACT study concluded that “[i]t conflates disodium EDTA and another, somewhat safer drug. It lacks precautions necessary to minimize risks. The consent form reflects those shortcomings and fails to disclose apparent proprietary interests. The trial’s outcome will be unreliable and almost certainly equivocal, thus defeating its stated purpose. We conclude that the TACT is unethical, dangerous, pointless, and wasteful. It should be abandoned.”

    This sort of “research”—funded by NCCAM to the tune of $130 million annually —is an affront to the NIH and NIH-funded investigators who are at the cutting edge of their disciplines and who are having increasing difficulty getting federal funding even for studies that are highly ranked on the basis of scientific merit.

  • Major Crisis Brewing

    In 2011 the percentage of research grant proposals that were funded by NIH fell to 18%, a record low. The squandering of research funds particularly shortchanges inexperienced scientists who do not have an extensive record of achievement. Bruce Alberts, the editor of Science and the former president of the National Academy of Sciences, wrote in a November 2011 editorial, “There is an ominous sense of a major crisis brewing. Budget realities have begun to constrain scientific progress across the board, with an especially heavy impact on the careers of young scientists.”

    Yet another federal research boondoggle is USDA’s $4 million yearly program on risk-assessment for “genetically engineered organisms,” run the by National Institute of Food and Agriculture. USDA has had a quarter century to figure out—helped along the way by innumerable analyses by the National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences, academics and others—that “genetically engineered organisms” is not a meaningful category amenable to risk analysis or deserving of discriminatory, sui generis regulatory oversight. It doesn’t need a dedicated set-aside for risk-assessment research.

    Because money is fungible, federal agencies may be funding the research of baby-naming bollocks and meditation therapy at the expense of science’s Next Big Thing. Organizations within NSF, NIH, and USDA have shown themselves incapable of consistently discriminating good science from bad.

    What is clearly needed is to take back control over the asylum by virtually stripping unworthy disciplines and organizations from dispersing research funds. This will not happen, however, unless there is pressure on Congress to do it, which presumably would need to come from the editors of major research journals, organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and responsible scientists whose research has been preempted by the funding of inferior projects. (Research funding is, after all, a zero-sum game.) But courage—even to air these dirty little secrets publicly—from any of these quarters has been lacking, and there has been only deafening, politically correct silence.

    One of the recommendations of Sen. Coburn’s April 2011 report was to “Eliminate NSF’s Social, Behavioral, and Economics (SBE) Directorate ($255 million in FY 2010).” And while we’re at it, let’s get rid of the NIH’s Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the NIFA biotech risk-assessment program, and other sources of dubious research. It would have made Sen. Proxmire proud.

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