Congress Critters enlist the taxpayers in the war on NSF funded science

December 3, 2010

Crossposting from Scientopia.
Additional comment from: Cackle of Rad, Chris Mooney, PZ Myers, joetotheizzoe

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.

26 Responses to “Congress Critters enlist the taxpayers in the war on NSF funded science”

  1. Someone Says:

    Here is one from the NIH:
    3U01MH066701-07S1 ($800k for teaching genital hygiene in South Africa)
    Abstract (excerpt): “The aim of the proposed feasibility study is to evaluate the feasibility and acceptability of a post-coital male genital hygiene procedure, which participants will be asked to practice immediately post-coitus or at least 12 hours after.”
    By the way, either I am missing something, or this has NOTHING to do whatsoever with “recovery”.


  2. Someone Says:

    A clarification: I am FOR funding science. I am, however, against the arrogance represented by the above example. It is precisely this kind of arrogance that is responsible for the creation of “anti-science environment”. No wonder…


  3. DrugMonkey Says:

    What is your objection here, Someone? Are you now bringing up the ARRA and questioning whether the funding of additional research projects affects jobs here in the US or something? Without any additional details we have to assume that the award to UCLA means that some jobs are being done by UCLA employees, right? so that’s consistent with the point of ARRA.
    Or are you objecting to the research topic?


  4. Someone Says:

    I am simply illustrating where the “anti-science” attitude comes from. It comes from funding precisely this kind of useless pseudo-science. Jobs created? Pay someone to dig a trench and then fill it with dirt again. Did you “create a job”?


  5. DrugMonkey Says:

    Are you questioning whether behavioral change can have positive health effects? Whether this study can evaluate a specific change/health effect? or what?


  6. Someone Says:

    Are you advocating spending $800k of taxpayers’ money on rediscovering the relationship between hygiene and health?


  7. travc Says:

    On ARRA funding…
    What the NIH did is take a second look at proposals which were very close, but missed the pay-line. Projects which were relatively small, could be immediately started, and/or employed or continued the employment of personnel were given immediate funding (after verifying with the researchers/labs involved that they were still ready to go for the projects).
    My wife’s lab got a project funded through ARRA (malaria vector research), and that actually helped me a lot since I lost my funding for several months just before completing my dissertation.
    On the larger topic, The one or two sentence descriptions of what a project is about/for are almost invariably highly misleading. At a very minimum, people need to include (or link) the complete abstract before they say anything about a project being “unworthy”. And in most cases, that is even insufficient, since the wider context is often critical. (My standard example is the “Bear paternity” study McCain went after in ’08… which was actually to get better population estimates of potentially threatened populations so that ones which were not actually threatened wouldn’t inhibit mineral exploration and exploitation efforts in their ranges. The mining industry were the ones who pushed for the ‘earmark’ funding of the study.)


  8. travc Says:

    Has anyone had luck finding the project Cantor mentions? I haven’t.
    Some project numbers would be appreciated.


  9. DrugMonkey Says:

    travc- see Mooney’s post for some followup of the projects mentioned. I think your general point holds here as well…


  10. becca Says:

    @someone If you are *already* entirely sure that hygiene is effective, perhaps you would be willing to lend your genitals for intentional exposure to HIV to demonstrate that a little soap and scrubbing is entirely protective?
    I see many potential objections to that study (though I hope/trust that many of them were addressed in something other than the abstract). But none of them rest on the notion that we already *know* “hygiene” is effective in this context.


  11. Eli Rabett Says:

    It ain’t just Republicans, see Bill Proxmire


  12. tkerwin Says:

    For the “$1.2 million to model the sound of objects breaking for use by the video game industry”, I assume he’s talking about the Sound Rendering for Physically Based Simulation project. I don’t know a whole lot about it, but I did read a paper published in SIGGRAPH from the research group funded by the grant.
    This isn’t $1.2 million to help the video game industry, it’s $1.2 million to fund public research that has influences on graphics, computational fluid dynamics, audio analysis, physical simulation and many other fields. It’s money to fund the education of PhD students, many of which end up working for American businesses.
    I’m not sure if attacks on basic research spending is based on ignorance about what technological advancement is achieved, short-sidedness about money (How are we going to have economic progress without scientific progress?), or general mistrust of academics.


  13. becca Says:

    Good thoughts, tkerwin. We wring our hands somewhat about distrust of academics and/or misunderstandings of how tech advancement has been achieved. The later is problematic because very little evidence exists about the *optimal* way to achieve technological advances- are ‘designed’ approaches- ala the manhatten project- more or less efficient than ‘just study the basic research!’ approaches? We all know plenty of stories of things that probably wouldn’t have been discovered if people hadn’t been studying something seemingly completely unrelated… but then, we don’t know what *would* have been discovered if the same researchers had been studying something that seemed to be more related to a particular application.
    All in all, I would wager that short-sightedness about money is sufficient to explain an awful lot of this type of idiocy. In part because we don’t see it *just* in the context of research- but a lot of federal spending. Look at the attitudes dominating the discourse about the Bush tax cuts- do we want 3 trillion in debt (democratic plan) or 3.7 trillion (republican plan)?


  14. whimple Says:

    The broader point is that the circularity of having grant awardees decide which grant applications are worth awarding leaves little or no role for participation by those funding the research (the taxpayer) in the process. With the taxpayer cut out of the loop, it is easier to make the argument that science funding is academic welfare and should be cut out of the budget.


  15. Someone Says:

    @Whimple: The problem is “how”. The taxpayers (and their congress critters) do not have the necessary expertise. Active scientists do not have the necessary ethics, and instead act upon misguided professional solidarity and sense of entitlement.


  16. CD0 Says:

    What do you mean by “Active scientists do not have the necessary ethics”?
    I have been in several study sections and I have always seen a tremendous effort to be fair by all mmbers. I actually think that the peer-review system is as fair as could be. The worst thing that you can do as a reviewer (and I have never seen it) is to look like an idiot in front of the study section that will likely review your future proposals. You see? This is different from politics or economics…
    It is hard because funding levels have been mutilated since the second term of the Bush administration, but not because scientific organizations and reviewers do not bring their most honest effort.
    It is obvious that you have not participated much in the process but can you be more specific about this strong acusation?
    Are you really a scientist?


  17. DSKS Says:

    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.
    Questionable? The only thing I would question was whether the methodology was feasible to approach these incredibly complex phenomena. The implications for these sorts of projects producing meaningful results is immense. What these idiot politicians need to so is step back and stop thinking about soccer players; instead consider the ramifications of understanding dynamic systems in which the agents are conscious rather than unconscious.
    Relevance? We just saw our entire fucking economy tank because of a lack of understanding of how the actions of conscious agents effect the aggregate outcome of a complex system. How’s that for relevance?
    Now, otoh, I’m a little skeptical that these projects will bear fruit in the short term because as I understand it this sort of thing requires a level of brute force computing that we still haven’t got. Of course, if the only thing to come out of studying where Wayne Rooney is on the football pitch when he’s singularly failing to score for England (and why England manages to suck no matter how many world class players it fields) is an advance in computer technology to actually handle the problem in the first place, that would a bit of a win.


  18. Someone Says:

    CD0: “Are you really a scientist?”
    Perhaps not, if by “scientist” you mean “a loyal member of the trade union of US scientific workers”. I am not going to pretend that the NIH peer review system is not completely screwed, and based on vested interests. I am not going to defend funding ridiculous pseudo-science. So indeed, I am not a “scientist”.
    I am just a researcher, interested in certain aspects of biophysics, and funded by the NSF.


  19. CD0 Says:

    So, again, can you tell me where you see the lack of ethics of the scientists/researchers/whateveryouwanttocallthem that participate in the peer-review system at NIH?
    Because every time I review grants, I get my time paid at a rate of a few cents per hour and I put my best effort in being absolutely fair. And this fairness is what I have seen in other members of at least 5 different study sections or special emphasis panels.
    I did not personally know anybody in the study section when I got my first R01, but they thought that my project was better than the proposal of other people coming from more prominent labs.
    If something, I believe that grants from famous researchers are more scrutinized. And what I have also seen (a lot) are many meritorious NIH grants that were not funded due to insufficient funds. Thanks to the kind of policies that people like Eric Cantor supports. But when R01s get funded in these difficult times by a panel of >20 underpaid experts in a particular field, swallow you jealousy, salute the awardees and learn.


  20. Someone Says:

    CD0 – if you, with your extensive experience on NIH panels, can’t see these examples yourself and instead claim that the peer review at NIH is “as good as it can be”, then giving you such examples is pointless. What for, to have them dismissed based on a logic and standards adopted from Alice in the Wonderland, and subordinate to the purpose of proving that the peer review is flawless?
    I rather use my collection of examples to support a war against the increase of the NIH budget. Of course, I would prefer joining a viable effort aimed at improving the NIH institutional culture, but there is clearly no interest in such improvement within our community, because “the system is nearly perfect”.
    BTW, stick your allegations of “jealousy” you-know-where. I do have my funding. I, however, personally know people who develop wholly novel classes of antibiotics, have preliminary results, and can’t get funded, while UCLA gets $800k for the program of dick washing (see my post #1). This illustrates what’s going on at the Institutes, despite the claims of perfection.
    Thank you for the discussion. S.


  21. CD0 Says:

    You stated that the NIH PEER REVIEW system is “completely screwed”, and accused active scientists of not having “the necessary ethics”.
    These are just two false statements, based on what I see 3 times per year and certainly on my personal behavior as a reviewer.
    If you want to criticize the funding priorities of institutional agencies, that’s a different matter. I would agree with you, perhaps, that biodefense is an outrageous waste of public money.
    In any case, the penny is yours.


  22. Mike Says:

    Interesting title. You call it NSF funded science as if that money just magically appears (I suppose the Fed does that). It is really tax payer funded science. So Congress and tax payers are questioning whether or not that money is spent on things they prefer. Remember, the money does not inherently go to scientists like some kind of birth right, not does it go to the NSF automatically. Tax payers through their intermediaries (Reps and Senators) choose to allocate some of their taxes in that fashion.


  23. whimple Says:

    Active scientists don’t have a problem with ethics. What they do have a problem with is groupthink.


  24. DrugMonkey Says:

    Mike: you will note that I tried to draw a distinction between tactical interference and broad priorities. I agree with you that the people’s representatives make the broader allocation decisions. I just think it is an error to let this bleed over into specific grants. Do we micromanage how much ammo the marines buy of each type? Do we vote on the next supplier of combat fatigues or MREs?do you think we should vote on whether Farmer Brown gets an ag subsidy over Farmer McDonald?
    Someone: if you think there is no critcism of the way NIH does business around these parts, well, you need to read more of my posts on the topic and follow the comment threads…


  25. katydid13 Says:

    @24 Actually, Congress does occasionally make attempts to micromanage the stuff you mentioned, but that doesn’t make it good policy.
    It has been my experience that there is literally nothing that Congress has not tried in some way at some point in time to micromanage badly.


  26. DSKS Says:

    I would be all for micromanaging (or any degree of bureaucratic streamlining) if it was actually going to increase cost efficiency, but we know in this case it won’t. After all, what congress critter is going to have the gumption to try and bring the hammer down on a genuine Spruce Goose project (genome sequencing project Mk Eleventy) with a word like “cancer” in the title (My esteemed opponent wants to turn America into a tumour!” – and other such lay-ups)? Especially if she has a top medical university in her constituency receiving some of that big money. It isn’t going to happen, even when it arguably should. Instead, they will go after the chump change being allocated for projects that are politically easy to pick up points opposing, and that will not overly affect the money flow to wealthy and influential interests within their locale.
    The real aim here is to find examples of seemingly iffy government spending in order to justify broader cuts that, in most cases, will have absolutely nothing to do with R&D. The strategy is simply to say, “Look, the government thinks spending x million on the sexual preferences of termites! Clearly we have to cut taxes and reduce welfare to the poor!”


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