Isis the Scientist recently posted a letter from the FASEB regarding a proposal in the Congress to pass a continuing budget resolution that whacks $1.6 Billion from the NIH budget for the current fiscal year. That’s a whole lot of grants that won’t be funded.
I’ll join many of my blogging colleagues in urging you to click on [ This Link ] to find the phone number of the Washington DC office of your Congressional Rep and for you to make that call.
I’ll also suggest a few things you might want to have at the top of your list for communicating to the office staffer who answers the phone. This originally went up Oct 29, 2008.


Since many of our US readers are feeling jazzed about politics right about now, it is a good time to discuss Talking Points. You, DearReader, whether in the biomedical science biz or merely interested in some aspect of biomedical science, are the first line of attack in advocating for the continued health of our federally funded science enterprises. As we’ve all learned over the past 8 or even 16 years of US politics, crafting and honing messages to convey essential themes is critical to political success. Generating a mantra-chant and drumbeat of lemming feet on a consistent and limited set of bullet point topics is the way to cut through the noise and transmit the message. Call it framing or Talking Points or whatever you like.
I have a suggestion for how scientists may wish to approach their CongressCritters.

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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.

The NIH Office of Extramural Research has a howler in the recent Nexus.

Application titles, abstracts and statements of public health relevance that are part of your application are read by reviewers, program officers and other NIH staff, but once funded, this information is also available to the public

so therefore

The extramural community has a responsibility to clearly communicate the intent and value of their research to all those interested in learning more—Congress, the public, administrators, and scientists. Take every opportunity to tell people what you do, why you do it, and why they should care.

Well yes, this is true. DM’s always going on about the taxpayer being “the boss”. Ok. Gotcha there.

But how stupid do they think we are? Why the emphasis on the items that show up in RePORTER?

Right wing wackaloon politicians making hay by bashing peer reviewed and funded scientific projects. That’s why.

Like ol’ Proxmire

and

Toomey

and

Issa

and

Barton and Walden

and the latest….John McCain and Coburn on supposed ARRA excesses.

Gee, I somehow think that us scientists explaining the importance of our research a little better isn’t going to do much good. These dumbasses don’t care about the science. Heck, they don’t even care about the money- one R01 is a mere dustmote in the Congressional allocation process. This is about drumming up political mouth breathers with anti-science blather, preferably focused on social health issues which run afoul of their moralistic viewpoints on human behavior.

Sex, drugs and HIV.

Work on those topics and all the explaining in the world isn’t going to fend of critique from Congress.

I think we can safely ignore this request.

From this Op-Ed.

The Institute of Medicine has recently released a report outlining the ominous public-health threat of chronic hepatitis C, much of which is the result of unwitting infection through medically-necessary blood transfusions, leading to 350,000 deaths worldwide each year and infecting more than three to five times as many people in the United States as HIV.

Narsty isn’t it? We should get right on that, don’t you think? Any decent models for research?

Currently, chimpanzees are the only experimental animal, except for humans themselves, susceptible to infection with hepatitis C. The Great Ape Protection Act would end the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research, grinding promising studies to a halt and unconscionably delaying the release of anti-viral therapies and a vaccine for chronic hepatitis C.

Whoops.

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Our good blogfriend, Scibling and scientist-artist BioE! has a post up discussing the intersection of drug abuse health care, drug abuse science, research funding and the political process. I recommend you start with:

Double standards, politics, and drug treatment research

But there’s a huge double standard in the media, and in society in general, when it comes to drug abuse treatment…Maybe it’s because these other addicts are meth addicts, or potheads, or heroin addicts – probably not people you relate to or approve of. That makes it pretty easy for the media to take cheap shots at crack, etc. addicts, and question whether we should waste money trying to help them…But here’s an even easier target than pot smokers: drug-using Thai transgendered prostitutes!

That last is not a joke.

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The good Dr. Isis is in the midst of reviewing Unscientific America and she has been striking a plaintive note:

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In our last episode of “CongressCritter Meddling”, it was Rep. Issa (R; CA) who tried to amend some appropriations bill or other to prevent the funding of three specific NIH grants.
The latest round of heroes are Reps Joe Barton (R; TX) and Greg Walden (R; OR) who are asking the new NIH director, Francis Collins, to come clean about a list of grants.

With that in mind, Barton and Walden are puzzled by some of the grants that were approved: “Impact of Dragon Boat Racing on Cancer Survivorship”; “Substance Use and HIV Risk Among Thai Women”; “The Healing of the Canoe”; “Patterns of Drug Use and Abuse in the Brazilian Rave Culture”.
“We do not doubt that there may be some degree of scientific benefit to be gained from these studies,” Barton and Walden wrote. “However, given the number of urgent public health issues facing the NIH, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and pandemic disease, we question how peer review panels determined these projects to have ‘high scientific caliber’ and how they are particularly relevant to the NIH Institute and Center research priorities.”

It is the usual blowhard posturing. Want proof?

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