Counting up the NIH porkbarrel spending

December 19, 2008

writedit is astonished! A “bombshell” Policy Forum in Science details the porkbarrel politics of NIH grant funding and finds that from 83-02, anywhere from about 3 to 6% of NIH funding was directly attributable to political effect.
Politics and Funding in the U.S. Public Biomedical R&D System
Deepak Hegde and David C. Mowery
Science 19 December 2008:
Vol. 322. no. 5909, pp. 1797 – 1798
DOI: 10.1126/science.1158562
My more consistent readers (which apparently do not include writedit) will find this all unsurprising. It is really cool, however, to see some workup of numbers. You know I love that noise.

Those who are really interested in the numbers will probably have access to Science so I won’t flirt with fair-use by posting the numbers. However, to overview the essential conceptual points made by the authors:

How do congressional appropriations committee members influence the allocation of federal funding for biomedical research?

The LHHE subcommittees consider the NIH budget request, amend the funding requests in the presidential budget, and “mark up” the appropriations bills, sometimes specifically for institutes and centers at the NIH, that are ultimately reported to the House and Senate by each chamber’s appropriations committee.
The subcommittee meeting reports that accompany the appropriations bills to the floor contain additional detail and guidance on the allocation and disbursement of appropriated funds by the NIH. Transfers affecting the level of support may involve (i) reallocation for NIH funding among the agency’s institutes and centers, (ii) subcommittee support for specific fields of biomedical research associated with particular diseases, and (iii) project-level transfers that reallocate funding among particular lines of research and/or research projects within a given disease field.

All politics is local, my friends. Call. Your. Congress. Critter!

We found that an additional HAC-LHHE member increased NIH funding for public universities in the member’s state by 8.8% (P < 0.01) and grants to small businesses by 10.3% (P < 0.01).

Okay, so what is the authors’ main point with this effort?

The congressional “power of the purse” is mandated by the Constitution. Political oversight of NIH funding decisions provides an important mechanism for public input into scientific judgments concerning health-research needs. Nevertheless, the exercise of such influence clearly mediates the effects of rigorous peer review.

We hope that our findings will spark a clearer debate over the extent and effects of political involvement in the resource allocations of the largest single source of federal civilian R&D spending. [emphasis added-DM]

So I’m getting the feeling they don’t like the idea of Congressional pork, re-direction and interference with the much-vaunted peer review of research proposals. Pshaw. My opinion might be different if all pork barrel allocation of federal resources were to disappear overnight. Even if McCain/Palin had been elected that was never, ever going to happen. So insertion of more or less specific funding interests by particular members of Congress will be a continuing reality. As such we scientists should play the game. Take advantage when we can for our own interests (say, AIDS funding), (hypocritically) decry and shame the pork we don’t like (NCCAM) and hope that keeping Congressional representatives informed, educated and enthused about science will result in more money coming to biomedical research science.

No Responses Yet to “Counting up the NIH porkbarrel spending”

  1. Dave Says:

    “Nevertheless, the exercise of such influence clearly mediates the effects of rigorous peer review.”
    My response to the authors is: Thanks for the info, but get off your naive high horse. The whole existence and organization of NIH is a response to public and congressional views that biomedical research is important. If scientists were really in charge of government research spending, the NSF budget would be $30B and NIH $6B, instead of the other way around. And anyway why is it such a bad thing that the American people get a say in how their money is spent? No one is forcing any scientist to take NIH money. If a researcher doesn’t like how congress appropriates money, then he/she should do what every other taxpayer does to get his/her way — educate and vote. Don’t whine. Especially not in a trade magazine.
    Besides, I think it’s already been established in multiple places that NIH peer review has completely lost touch with anything important, in that incremental minutiae tends to get funded over potential breakthroughs. If NIH had been in charge of the moon program, NASA would never have built a rocket, but would be still marching guys up bigger and bigger hills or maybe mutating mice in an effort to find a human gene that controls the ability to breath in space.


  2. Lamar Says:

    couldn’t you argue that all public-funded research is just one big pork barrel project?


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