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.