NIH funded scientists can’t study quack products, woo and other consumer scams?

February 18, 2020

It is that time of year when NIH issues a notice covering some long-standing prohibitions against spending their grant money on certain topics. NOT-OD-20-066 reads in part:

(a) No part of any appropriation contained in this Act or transferred pursuant to section 4002 of Public Law 111– 148 shall be used, other than for normal and recognized executive legislative relationships, for publicity or propaganda purposes, for the preparation, distribution, or use of any kit, pamphlet, booklet, publication, electronic communication, radio, television, or video presentation designed to support or defeat the enactment of legislation before the Congress or any State or local legislature or legislative body, except in presentation to the Congress or any State or local legislature itself, or designed to support or defeat any proposed or pending regulation, administrative action, or order issued by the executive branch of any State or local government, except in presentation to the executive branch of any State or local government itself.

(b) No part of any appropriation contained in this Act or transferred pursuant to section 4002 of Public Law 111–148 shall be used to pay the salary or expenses of any grant or contract recipient, or agent acting for such recipient, related to any activity designed to influence the enactment of legislation, appropriations, regulation, administrative action, or Executive order proposed or pending before the Congress or any State government, State legislature or local legislature or legislative body, other than for normal and recognized executive-legislative relationships or participation by an agency or officer of a State, local or tribal government in policy making and administrative processes within the executive branch of that government

You can see the weasel words, of course. The deployment of “designed to” could mean a whole host of things when it comes to “publication” or “electronic communication”. But still, the message one tends to receive here is that if some Congress Critter gets all up in a snit about it, you could be in trouble for publishing any studies or reviews or opinion pieces that tend to have political/public policy implications.

Gotta be honest folks, I think the vast majority of what I do could possible have public policy implications. Now, of course, most of what I do falls on the seemingly good side of one of the specific issues of concern to Congress about what I publish.

None of the funds made available in this Act may be used for any activity that promotes the legalization of any drug or other substance included in schedule I of the schedules of controlled substances established under section 202 of the Controlled Substances Act except for normal and recognized executive congressional communications.

But you can see where someone might get nervous about whether or not some aspect of their study of, oh, cannabis or THC or cannabidiol (CBD) just picking one out of the hat not really, might be viewed as “promoting legalization”. Especially if some advocates happened upon some result or other and started using your paper as their Exhibit A…. You can also see where the cannabis proponents (especially the medical advocates) might view this as the root of the conspiracy to scientifically demonize their favorite plant. and maybe it is, maybe it is… Congress will argue that they’ve thought this all through!

(b) The limitation in subsection (a) shall not apply when there is significant medical evidence of a therapeutic advantage to the use of such drug or other substance or that federally sponsored clinical trials are being conducted to determine therapeutic advantage. “

…..but this doesn’t help, right? The whole point of doing basic and pre-clinical and even clinical research (not trials, research) is to determine if there even IS any ” significant medical evidence of a therapeutic advantage“, right? This escape clause reads like you have to pull that medical evidence out of a non-Federally-funded hat before you can then do more research which might tend to “promote the legalization” of, e.g., cannabis.

But I digress. Oh, look SQUIRREL!

(2) Gun Control (Section 210)
“None of the funds made available in this title may be used, in whole or in part, to advocate or promote gun control.”

Yeah, that’s still in there. Notwithstanding Republican protestations that there really isn’t a ban on research on gun-related harms every time they get put in the crosshairs (oops) by the press in the wake of a mass shooting.

But I digress. Again. The thing I really wanted to discuss is:

(3) Anti-Lobbying (Section 503)

“ (a) No part of any appropriation contained in this Act or transferred pursuant to section 4002 of Public Law 111– 148 shall be used, other than for normal and recognized executive legislative relationships, for publicity or propaganda purposes, for the preparation, distribution, or use of any kit, pamphlet, booklet, publication, electronic communication, radio, television, or video presentation designed to support or defeat the enactment of legislation before the Congress or any State or local legislature or legislative body,

….

(c) The prohibitions in subsections (a) and (b) shall include any activity to advocate or promote any proposed, pending or future Federal, State or local tax increase, or any proposed, pending, or future requirement or restriction on any legal consumer product, including its sale or marketing, including but not limited to the advocacy or promotion of gun control.”

“any legal consumer product”. WOWIEE. Yes guns, but at present this includes all kinds of barely-regulated supplements and quack remedies (hi CBD!), cigarettes, e-cigarettes, organic and GMO/antiGMO foodstuffs…. the list goes on and on. And I don’t know how “services” might be distinguished from “product” but this might include chiropracty and aromatherapy and meditation and hot yoga and who knows what else that falls into the probably-woo camp.

Maybe this was always in this anti-lobbying section and I just never noticed or realized the full implications, as written.

My concern is not really that the NIH will come after my or my institution for a refund should any Congress Critter decide to make hay against one of my papers under this prohibition.

It’s that NIH ICs will run scared before this and be highly conservative in terms of what they fund, lest it run afoul of Congress.

Yeah, I had a ring side seat at one of these in the past so it’s not a theoretical concern. It’s something that should concern all of us.

5 Responses to “NIH funded scientists can’t study quack products, woo and other consumer scams?”

  1. dr_mho Says:

    Has this verbiage been used (like, actively used) to shut down a grant or block publication? I am wondering, if you wrote your paper to “just report the facts”, like “THC users didn’t show consequence X”, would this still run afoul of the prohibition? You could argue that you aren’t making a case for or against THC use, just reporting neutral research results.

    To be clear, I think this kind of oversight is ridiculous. Just curious about how often this policy has been used to limit research.

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  2. drugmonkey Says:

    It is an unknowable. How many times has program decided to pass on something because they were scared? How many times did a PI not submit something because of these rules? How many times did a reviewer score something down because they know about this prohibition and think it is okay to deploy?

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  3. dr_mho Says:

    I see your point – was wondering more about scientists publically saying “we tried to publish this and the government stepped in and blocked it because it was funded by NIH $$”. Or alternatively, we published “xxx” and the NIH canceled our already-funded grant.

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  4. drugmonkey Says:

    There is no mechanism for NIH to block the publication of data with a citation of a grant for paying for it, as far as I am aware. Or to retract, going by the language in ORI findings of fraud where retractions are stated as being at the request of the authors or maybe the University, but to my recollection never at the behest of the NIH.

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  5. Jonathan Badger Says:

    It’s particularly ironic given that the NIH has an entire agency devoted to studying bullshit — NCCAM. the “National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health”. Surely, if bullshit is already on the agenda, why not things that may not be bullshit and better than crap like acupuncture?

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