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Insight & Intelligence™ : May 20, 2013

GEN Hall of Shame

Meet the Congressional enemies of research funding.

You’ve seen GEN’s Congressional Hall of Fame—now, here’s our Hall of Shame. Following is a list of five U.S. Representatives and five U.S. Senators who have spearheaded efforts in recent years to reduce funds for federal agencies involved in funding basic research, or sought to reverse individual NIH grant funding decisions, sometimes by distorting and publicly deriding the purposes and relevance of the projects—or more recently, sought to narrow the activities of the agencies in ways that would alter their missions by Congressional vote.

The tight federal budgets of recent years have, understandably, caused the House and Senate to scrutinize most federal spending more closely. One consequence, however, has hurt NIH and other federal agencies—the across-the-board budget cuts or “sequestration” required by the Budget Control Act of 2011 absent a cut of at least $1.2 trillion in spending over a decade. NIH has lost $1.6 billion as a result of sequestration, while leaders of both parties in Congress have responded largely by pointing fingers at each other. For that reason, sequestration’s Congressional architects, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), also appear on this list.

Each member is listed by name, party, and state abbreviations, followed by a description of their efforts. Efforts to oppose the funding or grant-review policies of agencies have seen three waves of activity since President Barack Obama first won election in 2008. The first occurred from 2009–2010, after Obama won passage of his $814 billion “stimulus” law or American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, through Democratic majorities on both sides of Capitol Hill. The law—which included a one-time, $10 billion jump in NIH funding—sparked numerous efforts by Congressional Republicans to highlight wasteful or questionable spending, some focused on individual grants funded by NIH or NSF.

The second took place 2011–2012, after Republicans benefited from anger over Obama’s ramming the “Obamacare” law or Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act through Congress, recapturing a majority in the House of Representatives. In this period, GOP leaders sought to spotlight what they deemed questionable spending by the agencies, in part by numerous anecdotes about agency-funded projects. In the third wave, which began this year, Republicans have sought to sway the types of projects funded by the agencies, insisting on national-security or “biomedical” bases for decisions on grant funding.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH)

2011: Instead of trusting his first instinct—he was initially opposed to the idea of adding sequestration to the Budget Control Act—the speaker of the House instead allowed President Barack Obama’s administration to convince him to include the across-the-board budget-cutting mechanism to the 2011 law that required Washington to, alternatively, cut at least $1.2 trillion in federal spending over 10 years, Bob Woodward reported in his 2012 book “The Price of Politics.”

Because of the 5% across-the-board cut required for nondefense programs under sequestration, NIH’s budget has shrunk in the current fiscal year to a final funding level of $29.15 billion from $30.86 billion in FY 2012. (For FY 2014, Obama has proposed $31.3 billion, while research advocates have coalesced around seeking at least $32 billion.)

Boehner has responded to the unpopular budget cuts by pointing the finger entirely at the other side of the aisle, declaring in a February 19 Wall Street Journal op-ed column that sequestration was “an ugly and dangerous way” to cut spending—even as he stated: “There is nothing wrong with cutting spending that much—we should be cutting even more.”1

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA)

2011: Proposed amendments to H.R. 1, the Full Year Continuing Appropriations Act of 2011 that would have de-funded five previously approved grants. The grants, Issa said, covered an NSF study on whether video games improve mental health for the elderly, and three NIH-funded studies—on the impact of integral yoga on hot flashes in menopausal women; the potential impact of a soda tax on population health; and “use of marijuana in conjunction with opioid medications, such as morphine.”

However, NIH’s $74,750 “marijuana” study2 actually assessed HU-210, a synthetic cannabinoid. The $1.05 million “soda-tax” study3 was much broader, examining in part the relationship between restaurant sales taxes, diet patterns and consumption of soda, candy, baked goods, chips—no small sub-topic given the costs of obesity. And the $294,598 yoga study4 was designed to help find a safer treatment for hot flashes, according to the grant abstract: “The only currently effective treatment for hot flashes is hormone therapy, which many women are reluctant to take because of potential risks and adverse side effects.”

The “video game /elderly” study—based on NSF grants of $770,856 and $427,824 5—may arguably aid in Alzheimer’s disease research since they were intended to measure how cognitive training reduces age-related decline: “Knowledge gained from this project touches the fields of cognitive aging, human-computer interaction, and social computing—all of which need data on effective cognitive training interventions.”

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA)

March 5: In arguing that NIH should engineer its grant funding approvals to “a balanced biomedical research portfolio” focused on what he calls its core mission of biomedical research, the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, HHS, and Related Agencies wrote NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., a letter taking aim at two agency-funded studies: a $500,000 study intended to assess what Kingston said was “a local Thai family’s ability to save for future health and well-being concerns,” and a $50,000 study that he said “appears, on the surface, to sponsor an advocacy group for the illegal development of lobbying-type material.”

The Thai study focuses beyond one family’s ability to save, by aiming to “quantify vulnerability, and to compare and contrast the roles of kinship networks, government policy, and more formal financial institutions” in insulating Thai families from “illness and disability, erratic rainfall, crop disease, macro crises, and fluctuating prices in primary goods,” according to the project abstract.6

The other study is focused on improving the health of adults and teens in the criminal and juvenile justice systems.7

Kingston’s letter requests that NIH 1) review guidance on implementation of lobbying restrictions, and detail procedures as of February 1 to train staff to ensure full compliance with those restrictions; 2) review training grants to ensure none “either address political questions or fund any advocacy group seeking to develop lobbying material”; 3) detail the criteria used by Dr. Collins and the heads of all NIH’s institutes and centers to make funding decisions, and 4) detail how Dr. Collins will “ensure ongoing support for a balanced mix of highly meritorious, scientifically sound biomedical research within the resources available.”

What appeared to draw the ire of Kingston and a freshman member of his subcommittee, Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) was NIH’s decision to fund two grants totaling about $7 million to Stanton Glantz, Ph.D., director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at University of California, San Francisco. Dr. Collins told the subcommittee he was “quite troubled” by the grants, which were used in part to link the Tea Party to tobacco industry-funded organizations.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI)

March 20: Introduced budget resolution for FY 2013 that would cap at $414 billion all nondefense discretionary spending for FY 2014. That’s more than $50 billion below the level allowed under the Budget Control Act. Advocates say the resolution would have sliced another roughly $2 billion from NIH on top of what has been cut through sequestration.8 The White House went further, saying the proposal would have cut the number of NIH grants by 1,600 in FY 2014 and by more than 16,000 over the next 10 years, and would have shrunk NSF grants by more than 11,000 over that same decade.9

A day later, the resolution passes the Republican-majority House, but is rejected by the Democratic-majority Senate, which favors a budget resolution proposed by Senate Budget Committee Chair Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) that would allot 13% more than Ryan, $469 billion, in FY 14 nondefense spending. The budget resolutions follow by about a month Ryan’s third version of his “Path to Prosperity,” a 10-year spending plan that would eradicate budget deficits in 10 years by wiping out $5 trillion in federal spending. During that decade, nondefense spending would be capped at $1.029 trillion, 2.7% below the $1.058 trillion allowed under the Budget Control Act.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX)

April 17: Proposed that the federal government require that each project funded by NSF address how the research “would directly benefit the American people,” in addition to the agency’s traditional research funding criteria of intellectual merit and broader impacts. The proposal is a broader version of a stipulation contained within a recently approved Senate amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) that bars NSF from approving any political-science grants during FY 2013 "except for research projects that the director of the National Science Foundation certifies as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.” (Coburn’s amendment originally also transferred $7 million in NSF funding for political-science projects to NIH’s National Cancer Institute). The amendment was approved March 20 as part of a continuing resolution funding the federal government through FY 2013.

Earlier that day in addressing John Holdren, Obama’s science advisor, Smith asked: “Can you suggest how we might make sure that those who decide whether to approve these grants might be persuaded to focus on more helpful subjects, more scientific subjects, and more basic research?" Holdren expressed opposition to the idea: "I think it's a dangerous thing for Congress, or anybody else, to be trying to specify in detail what types of fundamental research NSF should be funding." Dan Arvizu, chair of the NSF overseer National Science Board, also argued that a public-benefit stipulation might “compromise the integrity of” the grant-review process—before joining NSF’s acting director Cora Marrett in telling Smith the board was open to examining the issue and defining what that benefit might be.

NSF’s first of eight stated purposes: “To initiate and support basic scientific research and programs to strengthen scientific research potential and science education programs at all levels in the mathematical, physical, medical, biological, social, and other sciences.”

Sen. Tom Coburn, M.D. (R-OK)

2012: In his “Waste Book 2012,” cites examples of what he deemed wasteful NIH grants, including $939,771 spent on three Drosophila melanogaster studies the book summarizes as “Male fruit flies are attracted to young females more than to older ones.”

But the multi-year NIH grants cover far more than sexual attraction: 5R01AG030593 concerns mechanisms of olfactory modulation; 5R01AG023166, dietary restriction; and 2R01GM074675, hormonal modulation of aggression.

The grants were among 10 public and private funding sources cited in a study published March 1 in The Journal of Experimental Biology, “Aging Modulates Cuticular Hydrocarbons and Sexual Attractiveness in Drosophila melanogaster,” which sparked the senator’s ire. That study showed that the composition of D. melanogaster cuticular hydrocarbons—through which key pheromones are produced—is significantly affected by aging in both sexes, and that these changes are robust to different genetic backgrounds.

Of eight other studies that cited the grants funded by NIH, two focused on sexual attractiveness, while the rest focused on fruit fly diet and aging.

A longtime critic of wasteful federal research spending—Henry I. Miller, Robert Wesson fellow in scientific philosophy and public policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution—made the case recently for studying the fruit fly: “A century of studies on the genetics of Drosophila melanogaster, the fruit fly, an organism that shares about half of its genes with humans, has yielded information critical to understanding the process of aging and how genes work.”

Individual NIH grants are also faulted in Coburn’s “Waste Book” reports for 2010 and 2011. The 2011 edition spotlights three grants totaling $592,527 for what the book calls a “study of throwing behavior in chimpanzees and its neurological origins.” According to the project descriptions, one grant focused on “factors which influence the development of the central nervous system and its behavioral and communicative correlates”10; another, “the neurobiological basis of individual differences in socio-communicative behavior and cognition in primates, joint attention”11; and a third, “the relationship between the evolution of executive functions, broadly defined, in primates in the context of individual and phylogenetic changes in the brain, notably the prefrontal cortex and associated striatal and limbic system structures.”12

2009: Joins Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in releasing “Stimulus Checkup,” a report alleging that $7 billion of the $814 billion in “stimulus” or American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds was “wasted, mismanaged, or directed towards silly and shortsighted projects,” citing in part 10 research grants funded by NSF and four by NIH among 100 total projects. While many of the 14 involved social-science topics, the senators included in their criticism a $210,000 NSF study of learning and cognition in honeybees, and an $8,408 NIH study examining the influence of ethanol on the neural mechanisms that control spatial navigation in mice.

But as the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology noted in a blog post at the time, honeybee research only sounds funnier than it is: “As honeybees disappear from colony collapse disorder, our crops are at risk of having no bees to pollinate them. Understanding their learning may help mediate the effects of honeybee declines.”

Researchers behind the mouse study told NSF they saw applications to understanding the effects of excess alcohol consumption in people: “Understanding the neurobiological mechanisms that are responsible for the detrimental behavioral actions of acute alcohol is essential for developing effective strategies to treat or prevent problems associated with alcohol abuse,” according to the grant abstract.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)

2009: Joins Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) in releasing “Stimulus Checkup,” a report alleging that $7 billion of the $814 billion in “stimulus” or American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds was “wasted, mismanaged, or directed towards silly and shortsighted projects,” citing in part 10 research grants funded by NSF and four by NIH among 100 total projects. (See entry on Tom Coburn, above.)

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)

2012: Proposes “A Platform to Revitalize America,” a 103-page spending plan that calls for eliminating $8 trillion in federal spending over 10 years—in part by reducing NIH funding to 20% below the FY 2008 level of $29.6 billion (which would be about $23.7 billion). After noting how NIH’s budget had doubled since FY 2000, Paul wrote: “NIH is responsible for basic and applied research on a variety of medical issues. However, the private sector also invests in research and development, spending nearly $40 billion annually without taxpayer funding. Additionally, much of the research and development undertaken by the NIH provides direct subsidies to the pharmaceutical industry, which consistently ranks among the most profitable industries in the United States.”13

2011: Unveils a “5-Year Balanced Budget” proposal that also calls for reducing NIH funding to 20% below the FY 2008 level.14

Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV)

2011: The Senate majority leader, along with speaker of the House John Boehner, allowed President Barack Obama’s administration to convince him to include the across-the-board budget-cutting mechanism to the 2011 law that required Washington to, alternatively, cut at least $1.2 trillion in federal spending over 10 years, also as Bob Woodward reported in “The Price of Politics.”

Reid has responded to the unpopular budget cuts resulting from sequestration by pointing the finger entirely at the other side of the aisle, declaring on the Senate floor April 24: “The Republicans like the pain. They like the pain." The verbal volley was leveled as Reid proposed his own alternative to the pain: Using savings from the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan toward the FY ’13 budget.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA)

February 26: During a hearing of the Senate Budget Committee, Toomey rebutted an argument of Hunter Rawlings, Ph.D., president of the American Association of Universities, that sequestration may result in NIH and NSF being forced to adjust to a lower spending baseline for future budgets: “It's not necessarily the case that NIH per se has to take the cut [in funding required by sequestration]. If the administration has the discretion across all nondefense categories, they might decide that—I don't know—that building taxiways, new taxiways on a seldom-used airport somewhere should be a lower priority than NIH.”

But the Budget Control Act of 2011 requires that unless $1.2 trillion is cut over 10 years, Obama “shall order a sequestration” in which he is “to reduce each account within the security category or nonsecurity category by a dollar amount calculated by multiplying the baseline level of budgetary resources in that account at that time by a uniform percentage.”

During the same hearing, Toomey sought to downplay the effects of sequestration: “This is really small in the context of the total spending and the economy. The federal government has doubled its spending in the last ten years and we're talking about a 2.5% reduction in [budget authority, and 1.25% from spending outlays] from that 100% growth.”

2003: As a U.S. representative from Pennsylvania’s 15th Congressional District, introduced an amendment to the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations bill (H.R. 2660), the “Amendment to Eliminate Ridiculous NIH Studies,” denying further federal spending on five NIH-funded studies. The amendment failed 210–212.

Toomey cited Mechanisms Influencing Sexual Risk-Taking15; Spatial and Temporal Interrelationships between Human Population and the Environment16; Longitudinal Trends in the Sexual Behavior of Older Men17; HIV Risk Reduction Among Asian Women18; and Health Survey of Two-Spirited Native Americans.19

“I simply want to make the point that there are so many far more important, very real diseases that are affecting real people; and that is what this kind of money could be used for,” Toomey said on the Senate floor. “Who thinks this stuff up? And, worse, who decides to actually fund these sorts of things? Well, unfortunately, the NIH has done so. These are not applications that are worthy of taxpayer funds.”