Send to printer »

Point of View : Jun 15, 2012 (Vol. 32, No. 12)

Waste and Abuse in Federal Research Funding

Government Agencies Cry Poor While Squandering Resources
  • Henry I. Miller, M.D.

From 1975 to 1987 Sen. William Proxmire (D-WI) presented monthly “Golden Fleece Awards” to identify what he viewed as wasteful government spending. The announcements were widely covered by the media at the time.

The first two awards went to the National Science Foundation, which Sen. Proxmire believed had a peculiar idea of what was worthy of taxpayer dollars. The first NSF grant, for $84,000, was intended to discover why people fall in love. The second, for $500,000 (part of which was from two other federal agencies), was to determine which stimuli cause rats, monkeys, and humans to bite and to clench their jaws.

NSF continues to fleece American taxpayers. In April last year Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a physician, released a report, “NSF Under the Microscope,” that provides a useful analysis of the agency’s funding. The news is mixed. On the one hand, Coburn found that “there is no question NSF has contributed significantly to scientific discovery.” On the other, “a significant percentage of your money is going to what most Americans will consider fraud, waste and abuse, and there are many areas where NSF could contribute far more with better management and smarter targeting of resources.”

Coburn’s report identified a number of projects that will make most Americans—scientists and nonscientists alike—shake their heads. They include studies of: how to ride a bike; when dogs became man’s best friend; whether political views are genetically predetermined; whether parents choose trendy baby names; and when the best time is to buy a ticket to a sold-out sporting event. And it noted that “only politicians appear to benefit from other NSF studies, such as research on what motivates individuals to make political donations, how politicians can benefit from Internet town halls...and how politicians use the Internet.”

My own experience confirms the thrust of Coburn’s report. Some of the projects I’ve encountered are of the overtly ridiculous variety. I recall suffering through a presentation about an NSF-funded study of the ethics of nanotechnology research. The investigator interviewed nanotechnology researchers in their offices, and part of her “research methodology” involved recording what kind of screen savers were on their computers.

The study concluded: “Narrative is an indispensable device for formulation of theory about scientists [sic] perspectives regarding the moral and social implications of nanotechnology,” and “alternative pedagogies are necessary to fully explore and develop a working ethical framework for analysis of nanotechnology.” Sounds as though it’s of nano-value to society.

Citizen Technology Forums

Some of the projects funded by NSF are less flagrant but real examples of waste, fraud, or abuse. For example, the agency has funded a series of “citizens technology forums,” at which previously uninformed, ordinary Americans were brought together to solve a thorny question of technology policy.

According to the NSF’s abstract of the project, carried out by researchers at North Carolina State University under a grant, participants were to “receive information about that issue from a range of content-area experts, experts on social implications of science and technology, and representatives of special interest groups”; this was supposed to enable them to reach consensus “and ultimately generate recommendations.”

The project, first funded in 2002 to support two panels, and expanded thereafter, called for eight more panels (comprised of people “representative of the local population”). Their deliberations were to be overseen by a research team “composed of faculty in rhetoric of science, group decision-making, and political science,” who were charged to test both “an innovative measure of democratic deliberation” and “also political science theory, by investigating relationships between gender, ethnicity, lower socioeconomic status and increases in efficacy and trust in regulators.”

The first of these NSF-funded citizens groups tackled regulatory policy toward agricultural biotechnology and recommended that the government tighten regulations for cultivating genetically engineered crops, including a new requirement that the foods from these crops be labeled to identify them for consumers.

Both of these proposals are unwarranted, inappropriate, and contrary to the recommendations of experts—including those within and outside the government. (The labeling recommendation would also run afoul of the constitutional guarantees of commercial free speech, which the citizens failed to realize.)

In 2008, the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University and its collaborators at North Carolina State University held an NSF-funded citizens technology forum on the topic of nanotechnology and human enhancement. It followed the pattern of the one on biotechnology, with the organizers selecting “from a broad pool of applicants a diverse and roughly representative group of seventy-four citizens to participate at six geographically distinct sites across the country.”

Participants were informed by “a sixty-one page background document—vetted by experts—to read prior to deliberating.” (The experts once again reflected the viewpoints of the organizers, no doubt.) They produced a hodgepodge of conclusions and recommendations, including “concern over the effectiveness of regulations” and “reduced certainty about the benefits of human enhancement technologies” but wanted “the government to guarantee access to them if they prove too expensive for the average American.” (Surprise: The participants didn’t understand the risks and benefits of the new technology but wanted the government to provide them with entitlements so they could avail themselves of it!)

The output of the citizens technology forums illustrates that such undertakings have limitations in both theory and practice; nonexperts are too often subject to their own prejudices and to the specific choice of background materials and the advocates to whom they are exposed. Both of these groups yielded just what one would expect: opinions that were based on a slanted and incomplete understanding of the subject.

Getting policy recommendations on obscure and complex technical questions from groups of citizen nonexperts is like going from your cardiologist’s office to a café, explaining to the waitress the therapeutic options for your chest pain, and asking her whether you should have the angioplasty or just take medication.

This project is ill-conceived on its face. Moreover, the NSF’s left hand seems not to know what the right hand is doing. A study of public comprehension of science by the foundation several years ago found that fewer than one in four people know what a molecule is, and only about half understand that the earth circles the sun once a year. There’s a good reason that people generally are not science and technology savvy—a phenomenon that has been dubbed “rational ignorance,” which comes into play when the cost of sufficiently informing oneself about an issue to make an informed decision on it outweighs any potential benefit one could reasonably expect from that decision.

Citizens occupied with the concerns of daily living—families, jobs, health—may not consider it to be cost-effective to study the potential risks and benefits of genetic engineering or nanotechnology.

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.”

NCCAM

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.