There is a long tradition of Congressional members trying to whip up a little support from their base by going after federally funded extramural research projects of the NIH. I have described some of this here and here.

You will note the trend, this has by and large been an effort of socially conservative Republican Congress Critters to attack projects that focus on issues of sexual behavior, drug taking, gender identity, homosexuality, etc. We know this is their focus because despite talking about “waste” of federal money they make no effort to realistically grapple with cost/benefit. No doubt because in their view the only necessary solution to behavioral health issues is “Stop it! If you can’t then you must be morally inferior and do not deserve any public concern”.

You will also note that they don’t really mean it in many cases. You’ll see this blather when they know they have no chance of getting the votes. In a prior case I reviewed, the complainers identified cancer as being a “real” concern worthy of funding, and then picked on a cancer-related project. A long while back when I first got interested (and I can’t remember the specific details- it was a psychology type grant on beautifying dorm rooms or something), the Congress Critter’s amendment specified an existing specific grant year- there was no way that I could see that the funds can be retrieved in such a situation. So you could see where much of this is just naked political posturing with no intent of actually doing anything. But still…it continues the anti-science environment and political memery. So we should address it.

Cackle of Rad has tipped us to a new effort by Rep Eric Cantor (R; VA) and Adrian Smith (R; NE) to invite you, the public, to identify NSF projects that irritate you. One assumes they think the public should be allowed to vote the projects out of funding.

Now, admittedly, I find the specific examples to be refreshing and new

Recently, however NSF has funded some more questionable projects – $750,000 to develop computer models to analyze the on-field contributions of soccer players and $1.2 million to model the sound of objects breaking for use by the video game industry.

Not a sign of a social issue and, gasp, are they really criticizing corporate pork? Admittedly the video game industry is not traditionally an ally of social conservatives (Grand Theft Auto anyone? hmm, maybe this requires some additional thought) but still.

Okay, so what are my two biggest objections to this practice.

First, the basic-science issue. It has been discussed before extensively on blogs. All clinical applications, medical devices, drugs, etc, are rooted in prior basic science that stretches back for decades and in cases centuries. We cannot get to new treatments in the future without laying the groundwork of basic understanding of healthy and diseased function of the human, the mammal, the vertebrate, the animal, the alive, the Earth-ian. Therefore the application of much of the present basic science work cannot be confidently asserted at the time it is being conducted. Sure, we pursue a general idea and can make some predictions about where it might apply but the history suggests that it is often a fortuitous inference, surprising connection or unlooked-for application of existing knowledge that creates a new therapy.

Non-biological research and design differs very little in this regard. Many new products and applications are built on the discoveries and innovations that came from basic (and applied, admittedly) science that came before.

It is a big mistake to allow persons who do not understand this to make the tactical decisions on what should and should not be funded. By tactical, of course, I mean the specific projects. I have less problem with Congress weighing in on general priorities, such as swings from focus on breast cancer to AIDS to Alzheimer’s to diabetes or whatever. We have to accept, in the sciences, that there will be some degree of this prioritization that will not respect each of our own parochial research interests.

Just so long as we don’t have wholesale prevention of research into major categories of health concern, that is…

My second objection to the democratic approach is the cost/benefit analysis objection. Not that it is my role to do such cost/benefit but the system as a whole should be sensitive to this. To a rational knowledge that, for example, if we create a new drug which lets an Alzheimer’s patient live at home for 9 mo longer, stave off the need for in-home professional help for 12 mo and/or transition to low-intensity hospice later..well this is going to save a lot of money on a population basis. Not least because then they might, statistically, die of a stroke or heart attack or some other normal condition more frequently before they go into the intensive phase of managing end stage Alzheimer’s.

The argument for corporate welfare for new products of a non-health nature is really no different. Spend money now to reap bigger savings later.

It’s called “investment”, yo!

And I don’t really see where little ‘d’ democracy at a tactical level helps out with deciding what to invest in for the future.