Meet the Members of Congress who Fostered Sequestration on Research Agencies

If words were dollars, the NIH and other federal agencies involved in funding research would have the billions they seek and then some. Instead, they must make the case for funding in an environment of limited federal dollars, and often less understanding about the work of NIH and the other research agencies. Over the past year, the hunt for budget bucks has set off some partisan squabbling sadly typical of today’s Washington—but has also shown signs that the political parties may ultimately unite on funding basic research.

Below are eight members of Congress who since last year have emerged, intentionally or otherwise, as roadblocks to funding NIH and other biopharma-related agencies.

Five of the eight are Representatives; the other three, Senators. The disparity reflects the policy emphasis by leaders of the House of Representatives on controlling federal spending, even if it means cutting into research and the agencies that fund it. That’s not to say the Senate doesn’t have fiscal conservatives, but they are fewer, even within the chamber’s current Republican majority. One key fiscal conservative retired after last year: Tom Coburn’s annual “Waste Book” reports included examples of NIH grants deemed wasteful, as GEN detailed in 2013.

Another reason why fewer Senators than Representatives made this year’s list is because the Senate has yet to take up the portion of the budget that funds NIH, known as “Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies,” with its own namesake subcommittee offshoot of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Senate Appropriations has just finished the portion of the budget that includes the National Science Foundation (NSF), known as “Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies” (CJS). The approved budget freezes NSF funding for FY 2016 at this year’s level of $7.34 billion, compared with $7.723 billion sought by President Obama. By contrast, the CJS budget passed by the House gave NSF $7.394 billion, up $50 million (0.7%).

Two of the eight on the List are co-architects of the across-the-board budget cuts or “sequestration” that the NIH and research advocates have decried for the millions of dollars sliced from grants to investigators and other programs. NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., tied the cuts to the absence of an Ebola cure during last year’s West Africa outbreak—only to see several members of Congress push back by publicizing what they called instances of wasteful spending by NIH and the NSF, often by distorting through oversimplification the research funded by peer-reviewed grants.

The Democratic administration vs. Republican lawmakers squabble may yet give way to a meeting of minds for a significant jump in research spending. In April, Representatives hammered out a bipartisan “discussion draft” for the proposed 21st Century Cures Act, that included no less than $10 billion extra for NIH over five federal fiscal years, plus an extra $1.5 billion each year from FY 2016 through 2018.

Also, two former Representatives who championed conservative views while in office—including former Speaker Newt Gingrich and former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor— have called for sharp increases in basic research funding. Gingrich would double NIH’s budget, now at $30.3 billion. It remains to be seen whether the bill will translate into a new consensus era for federal research agencies, or just serve as a pause in a bitter political feud.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH)

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 four years ago 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 non-defense programs under sequestration, NIH’s budget shrunk from $30.86 billion in FY 2012 to $29.15 billion the following year, before inching back up to $30.3 billion in the current fiscal year

Boehner has responded to the unpopular budget cuts by pointing the finger entirely at the other side of the aisle, declaring in a Feb. 19, 2013, 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 Yet just a few days later, he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press:” I don't think anyone quite understands how the sequester is really going to work.”

This year, Boehner told reporters on April 23 he was open to a deal revising sequestration if it were part of a bipartisan compromise like the one in 2013 that ended the federal shutdown, hammered out by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA): “If there's a way to reduce mandatory spending in a way that would provide relief to the sequester, like we did with the Ryan-Murray budget plan, have at it.”2

Rep. John Culberson (R-TX)

Culberson, chair of the House of Representatives’ Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) subcommittee, said in an interview on May 14 that he wanted NSF to spend $7 of every $10 it receives on “core” or “pure” science directorates—namely biology, computing, engineering, and math and physical sciences— rather than the geoscience or social and behavioral sciences directorates.

“I want to make sure that they [NSF] are spending about 70% of their money on the core sciences,” Culberson told Science. ““I want to make the hard sciences a priority—the math and physics and pure science. The fundamental mission of NSF should be those core sciences.”

NSF doesn’t distinguish core vs. non-core sciences. The agency’s first of eight stated purposes is: “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.”Yet the House has taken a significant step toward translating Culberson’s 70% benchmark into policy. On May 20, the House approved a reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act that called for 71% of NSF research funding for the four “core” sciences.

Authorization bills differ from appropriations bills, in which decisions are set on where money is spent. The same day America COMPETES was reauthorized, Culberson’s committee approved an FY 2016 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Bill that raised NSF’s overall budget $50 million or 0.7%, to $7.344 billion.

“The Committee directs NSF to ensure that Mathematical and Physical Sciences; Computer and Information Science and Engineering; Engineering; and Biological Sciences comprise no less than 70 percent of the funding within Research and Related Activities,” the subcommittee stated in a report accompanying the bill, as the American Institute of Physics first reported on its blog.

The bill would set aside 66% of research spending for core sciences, up from 65% this fiscal year, and 64.6% sought by President Obama in his proposed FY 2016 budget. The subcommittee set research spending at $5.984 billion, up $50 million or 0.8% from FY2015; Obama sought $6.186 billion, up $252.7 million or 4.3%.

Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD)

In an op-ed column in The New York Times on October 2, 2014, Harris proposed cutting NIH funding unless it abides by a Congressional mandate he seeks that would lower the median age of first research awards to new investigators to under age 40 within five years, and under 38 within 10 years  Howard Garrison, deputy executive director for policy for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, expressed antipathy toward such a mandate, telling Science: “Mandating NIH to come up with a specific outcome is a dangerous and risky position to take given the complexity of the situation.”

However, a modified version of Harris’ proposal is included as part of $1.013 trillion spending agreement for FY 2015 approved December 9, 2014, by both houses of Congress. Under the agreement, NIH “is directed to develop a new approach with actionable steps to reduce” the median age for first-time grant winners. The report also directed NIH “to prioritize Federal funds for medical research over outreach and education.” Harris’ op-ed criticized the agency for awarding funds for two projects not tied to medical research, or studying the creation of a social security system in southern Mexico. Such projects may have value to some, but is creating a video game really more important than researching a cure for Alzheimer’s?”

Harris did not detail those projects, though NIH’s funding of one video game project has been faulted by other members of Congress. The agency awarded $258,000 for Virtual Sprouts, a video simulation of Michelle Obama’s Organic Garden, through which children can plant their own crops, watch them grow, then harvest them: “The goal of this project is to positively influence dietary changes and prevent obesity in minority youth through meaningful play.”

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)

On May 7, McCain released “America’s Most Wasted,” a 19-page report detailing what it calls examples of government waste. The report faults NIH for awarding two grants totaling $390,798 (x) (y) to David C. Schwebel, Ph.D., of the University of Alabama at Birmingham toward “A Website to Teach Children Safety with Dogs.”

“With so many public health concerns facing the United States, including the recent outbreak of Ebola and a lack of funding to fight deadly diseases across the globe, it is vital that Congress ensure NIH spends its funding on essential—not duplicative—programs,” the report states.

According to information submitted by Dr. Schwebel to NIH, the website is the basis of a future study assessing its effectiveness using a repeated measures pre-test, post-test experimental design: “68 children ages 4–6 will be recruited, complete a pre-intervention assessment evaluating knowledge and behavior relevant to dog safety via multiple methods, and then be randomly assigned to use either the newly developed dog safety website or a control pedestrian safety website at home over the subsequent 2 weeks.”3 Dr. Schwebel cited statistics showing that dog bites result in over 800,000 doctor/ER visits, 6000 hospitalizations, and a dozen deaths nationwide each year. “Several programs exist to reduce pediatric dog bite risk, but few are empirically supported or theoretically motivated. None are widely disseminated.”4

A protocol for the future study was published online May 28, 2014, in the journal Injury Prevention.5

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)

On January 12 Paul joined Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) in a Politico commentary headlined: “No, the GOP Is Not At War With Science.” The lawmakers cited several NSF grants touching on social science topics as well as NIH’s award of $258,000 for Virtual Sprouts, a video simulation of Michelle Obama’s Organic Garden, through which children can plant their own crops, watch them grow, then harvest them: “The goal of this project is to positively influence dietary changes and prevent obesity in minority youth through meaningful play.” While the promotion of the First Lady’s pet project rankled the lawmakers, NIH declares its mission as being “to uncover new knowledge that will lead to better health for everyone,” in part by “fostering communication of medical and health sciences information.”

“These programs might sound merely frivolous, but the problem is that when the NSF or NIH funds projects of these kinds, there is less money to support good scientific research that can yield technological breakthroughs and opportunities for economic growth,” Paul and Smith asserted. “To remain a world leader, the United States must ensure that our investments are funding not just any science but the best science.”

On the Policy Blotter blog of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Ben Cords countered: “The op-ed follows a long established narrative where politicians cherry pick funded research grants whose titles sound silly or frivolous and then paint the agency’s entire research portfolio with their now justified skeptical brush. This is not a new way to frame the argument, and it remains a flawed way to discuss science funding.”

The article also took issue with nine projects that received NSF grant funding. The largest of these was described by the lawmakers as “an investigation of tea party activity on social media,” for which NSF awarded $919,917.6 The grant funded studies into the diffusion of online information as well as “Truthy,” described in the grant abstract as “a web service open to the public for monitoring trends, bursts, and suspicious memes. This service could mitigate the diffusion of false and misleading ideas, detect hate speech and subversive propaganda, and assist in the preservation of open debate.”

The Washington Free Beacon juxtaposed Truthy’s contention that it is nonpartisan with the support for progressive groups—among them President Obama’s Organizing for Action,, and Greenpeace—previously expressed by lead investigator Filippo Menczer, Ph.D., of Indiana University. Truthy answered back: “While the Truthy platform provides support to study the evolution of communication in all portions of the political spectrum, it is not informed by political partisanship.”

“The target is the study of the structural patterns of information diffusion,” Truthy added. “The assumption behind the Truthy effort is that an understanding of the spreading patterns may facilitate the identification of abuse, independent from the nature or political color of the communication.”

On October 15, 2014, Paul responded to NIH arguments that it lacked funding to study Ebola following years of yo-yo budgeting by highlighting several agency grants he said represented wasteful spending. The largest of these was $2.4 million awarded to Origami Healthcare Products for a next-generation condom. While the company and a former assistant later filed dueling lawsuits accusing each other of misusing government funds for non-research purposes—with the NIH demanding repayment—Paul suggested the topic itself was problematic: “This is a family crowd, so I’m not getting into what that means.”

Paul also cited NIH for spending part of a of $939,000 grant “to discover whether or not male fruit flies would like to consort with younger female fruit flies.” A study published 2012 in The Journal of Experimental Biology concluded that aging-related changes in key pheromones produced as cuticular hydrocarbons (CHCs) are responsible for a significant reduction in sexual attractiveness among the flies. A year later in Science, researchers concluded fruit fly “life span may be modulated through the integrated action of sensory and reward circuits,” adding: “imbalances of expectation and reward may therefore have broad effects on health and physiology in humans and may represent a powerful evolutionary force in nature.”

The studies were two among several funded through two NIH recurring grants awarded to Scott Pletcher, Ph.D., of University of Michigan for research going well beyond sex: One recurring grant totaling more than $2.6 million since 2007 is intended to fund research into “Mechanisms of Sensory Modulation of Aging in Drosophila,”7; the other, “Mechanisms of Dietary Restriction in Drosophila,” and totaled nearly $3.4 million since 2003, when Dr. Pletcher was at Baylor College of Medicine.8

After noting that NIH’s budget has grown from $17 billion in FY 2000 to $30 billion this fiscal year, Paul added: “No money has been cut in Washington. But it’s about time that we do cut money in Washington.” 

Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV)

As Senate majority leader, Reid let President Barack Obama, a fellow Democrat, convince him four years ago 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—even though Reid was initially opposed to the idea of adding sequestration to the Budget Control Act, Bob Woodward reported in his 2012 book “The Price of Politics.”

Because of the 5% across-the-board cut required for non-defense programs under sequestration, NIH’s budget shrunk from $30.86 billion in FY 2012 to $29.15 billion the following year, before inching back up to $30.3 billion in the current fiscal year. Reid later responded to the resulting budget cuts at NIH and other agencies by blaming Republicans, declaring on the Senate floor April 24, 2013: “The Republicans like the pain. They like the pain.”

This year, Reid has joined President Obama and other Senate Democratic leaders in stating that they would not vote for budget bills unless they relax sequestration-required spending caps. That position sets up a potential future standoff with the senate’s Republican leaders, who to date have adhered to the caps.

Rep. Steve Russell (R-OK)

On April 7 Russell released “Waste Watch No. 1,” billed as the first in a series of reports detailing instances of wasteful spending by the U.S. federal government. The reports are a successor to the annual “Waste Book” reports published by now-retired Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK).

Among items cited by Russell’s “Waste Watch” is an NSF grant of $695,485 awarded in 2010 to Mark Riedl, Ph.D., of Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) to fund the use of artificial intelligence to support creative digital filmmaking, specifically “machinima—cinematic movies created by manipulating avatars in 3D computer game worlds.”

“The goal of this research is to reduce the technological and skill barriers to complex, but rich forms of digital expression such as filmmaking, thereby increasing the creative productivity of amateur creators,” according to the grant abstract.9

Counters Russell: “The agency would do better not to interfere in the wild world of video game moviemakers, instead allowing them to develop their own solutions to growing their community and developing their craft.”

But as NSF points out elsewhere on its website10, 3D modeling and computer animation can serve purposes beyond fun: “Increase student interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects in traditionally underserved communities.” The NSF grant was one of ten instances cited in the report: “Each item points to larger, ongoing issues that merit further oversight, investigation, or action by Congress in order to protect taxpayer money,” Russell added.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX)

As chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Smith on April 15 introduced HR 1806, a bill reauthorizing the America COMPETES Act, in part by adding to NSF’s policy objectives “increasing interdisciplinary investment in strategic areas vital to the national interest,” in addition to the agency’s traditional research funding criteria. The revised measure would require NSF to offer a written justification for each grant that includes among criteria how it meets “national interest.”11

HR 1806 awaits action by the Senate after the House of Representatives on May 20 passed the bill 217-205, on a mostly party-line vote.

The reauthorization bill would increase NSF’s budget in FY 2016 by $253 million over or about 3%, to $7.597 billion. That’s a smaller spending hike than the 5% or $7.723 billion sought by President Obama in his proposed 2016 budget. HR 1806 would add more than $100 million above Obama’s request each to the foundation’s directorates for biology, computing, engineering, and math/ physical sciences.

But the bill would cut $137 million (42%) from Obama’s request for the directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences, and $165 million (8%) from the president’s proposal for the Geosciences directorate. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Department of Energy (DOE)’s Office of Science would also see lower funding than what Obama proposed. The cuts are aimed at social sciences research and research into climate change.

In a letter to Smith and members of his committee, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) contended: “We would have liked to see the growth in NSF, DOE Science and NIST continued in FY17, rather than see gains eroded by inflation. AAAS also has concerns about the approach of H.R. 1806 to authorize NSF directorates individually, thus in effect placing certain directorates over others.”

On January 12 Smith joined Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) in a Politico commentary headlined: “No, the GOP Is Not At War With Science.” (See Rand Paul, above)

1 See “John Boehner: The President Is Raging Against a Budget Crisis He Created,” The Wall Street Journal, updated posting Feb. 20, 2013
2 See “Boehner says would welcome deal to ease U.S. spending caps,” Reuters, April 23, 2015
3 See Project No. 5R21HD075960-02, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD)
4 See Project No. 1R21HD075960-01A1, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD)
5 See: Evaluating a website to teach children safety with dogs, Injury Prevention (2014) 21:e2; doi:10.1136/injuryprev-2014-041286.
6 See Award No. 1101743
7 See Project No. 5R01AG030593-08, National Institute on Aging
8 See Project No. 5R01AG023166-10, National Institute on Aging
9 See: Award No. 1002748
10 See Video Game Design Program Boosts Interest in Science Careers (2010)
11 National interest” is defined as having the potential to achieve “(A) increased economic competitiveness in the United States; (B) advancement of the health and welfare of the American public; (C) development of an American STEM workforce that is globally competitive; (D) increased public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology in the United States; (E) increased partnerships between academia and industry in the United States; (F) support for the national defense of the United States; or (G) promotion of the progress of science in the United States.” See Pages 16-17 of America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015


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