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Politics of Public Research Funding

A great deal of science is funded by the US government. The total research funding for 2009 was 54.8 billion dollars (much more if you include all R&D). A breakdown by agency of total R&D shows that the NIH (National Institutes for Health) funding is 28.5 billion while the NSF (National Science Foundation) is 4.1 billion.

There is general agreement that this expenditure is an investment on critical intellectual infrastructure for our nation and is vital to our competitiveness and standard of living. The government certainly has the right, and in fact the duty, to ensure that this money is well-invested. Government oversight is therefore understandable. Inevitably, however, politics is likely to intrude.

Representative Lamar Smith has been developing legislation that would in effect replace the peer-review process by which grants are currently given with a congressional process. Rather than having relevant scientists and experts decide on the merits of proposed research Smith would have politicians decide. It is difficult to imagine a more intrusive and disastrous process for public science funding.

Superficially some of the language of the bill may seem benign and reasonable. The draft bill calls for all research to be:

(1) is in the interests of the United States to  advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare,  and to secure the national defense by promoting the  progress of science;

(2) is the finest quality, is ground breaking,  and answers questions or solves problems that are of  utmost importance to society at large; and

(3) is not duplicative of other research projects  being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.

The first two criteria sound reasonable at first – that the research is of some practical use. What this is, however, is a broadside against all basic science research. For optimal effect, scientific research needs to be balanced between speculative research, basic science research, translational research, and practical research. You can’t have all research be designed to lead directly to a practical application. You need sufficient basic science research to feed into that last step in the development process.

It can be difficult, however, for non-scientists to understand the relevance of abstract basic-science research. Often it is not even clear how such research might translate into a practical application – scientists sometimes are just curious and want to figure out how things work. It is often exactly this kind of research that leads to unexpected advances with very practical applications.

I have noticed, however, that researchers have become reflexively good at making up plausible-sounding possible applications for their basic science research – as if they have to constantly justify their research. Every basic-science study that looks at viruses, therefore, may one day cure the common cold. Anything dealing with cell replication may be a cure for cancer. Any materials advance will lead to supercomputers or superlight vehicles. All brain research, apparently, might one day cure Alzheimer’s disease.

I would love for a scientist to say something to the effect of “I have no idea what, if any, practical use this research might lead to, but the knowledge is really cool”. I guess you just don’t say that to a grant committee, however.

When those providing the funding insist on an immediate practical application, they put their thick thumb on the scale and affect the balance of research, shifting it away from basic science. This may have the effect of actually slowing scientific progress. Resources (researchers, institutions, subjects, etc) follow the funding. They have no choice. It’s appropriate to have broad goals for research funding, but it’s counterproductive to dictate how those goals should be achieved.

This can happen with private funding as well. I have seen it happen with disease research. Private charitable organizations raise money to research a disease. The organizers want that money to go to research that will directly benefit patients (who are often their primary donors). But if this prematurely pushes researchers toward clinical studies when we don’t have the basic science sufficiently worked out yet, you end up wasting a lot of time and resources on dead ends.

The third criterion may sound like a way to avoid waste, but it is hopelessly naïve about how science progresses. Duplicative research is a good thing. One reason is that independent replication is vital to scientific advance. That provision looks like it was written by someone who thinks that a single study is sufficient to establish a scientific finding.

Second, it often makes sense to tackle a problem simultaneously from multiple angles and theories. Non-scientists should not put themselves in the position of picking scientific winners and losers before the research is even completed.

The bottom line is that there is no easy formula or algorithm for deciding what research to fund. You can have criteria, but applying those criteria requires intimate knowledge of the research area, of research in general, and the background science. Peer-review by a panels of experts is the best method for making such decisions.

As expected the NSF was very critical of the proposed legislation to replace this process with a more political one. In addition to the draft bill, Smith has written to the NSF requesting information on specific grants with which he has issue.

Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, who also sits on the science committee, wrote a letter to Smith complaining about this request:

In the history of this committee, no chairman has ever put themselves forward as an expert in the science that underlies specific grant proposals funded by NSF. I have never seen a chairman decide to go after specific grants simply because the chairman does not believe them to be of high value.

She hits the nail directly on the head – oversight of science-funding by politicians does not mean that they present themselves as scientific experts above actual experts in the field.

Optimally efficient and effective scientific research requires a certain degree of intellectual freedom. It is legitimate to require transparency and accountability, but not micromanagement. There needs to be a certain insulation between the political process and the scientific process.

The worst aspect of this proposed bill is that it would throw the door wide open for political intrusion into public science funding. Every Senator or Representative with an ideological ax to grind could harass and impede funding of undesirable research.

Let’s hope this bill dies an early death.

Posted in: Politics and Regulation

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29 thoughts on “Politics of Public Research Funding

  1. windriven says:

    The other side of the coin is that elected officials have a fiduciary duty to assure that the taxes collected are spent wisely (I’ll pause for a moment while laughter subsides).

    But seriously folks, NCCAM alone has an annual budget of ca. $130 million. An October 2012 Forbes magazine piece detailed 17 nutty research grants awarded to well recognized institutions like Mass General and Ohio State and Brown University to ‘study’, for instance, massage and “mindfulness.” Look at NCCAM’s org chart. It is littered with MD and PhD scientists. One might forgive a senator or representative with no particular background in science for questioning whether scientists can be relied on to to spend large sums without close supervision.

    Congress is going to be intimately involved in research regardless of the fate of this particular not-quite-a-bill-yet because Congress doles out the dough. Where is the scientific association whose primary mission is extolling the virtues of basic research to the folks with the cash?

    Science is extraordinarily cool. It is the foundation of everything that makes us healthy and wealthy and much of what makes us happy. How hard is it to sell that, even if Congress was composed entirely of luddites?

    The thing is, somebody has to do the selling.

  2. rork says:

    Alexis De Tocqueville, a very long time ago already, noted that Americans were more inclined to apply science than to labor over the more basic research, and that this might be a trait of democracies and capitalism. He spent whole chapters on it. People and companies wanting to make money will focus on translation to applications, so there is less need to bolster those efforts, while the payoff for very basic knowledge (in medicine especially) might be very little in the short run. The role of the government might be best at filling the less met need.
    The last Bush administration was big on switching toward more funding of translational research, with the notion that this has more good impact on the economy. Whether there’s evidence that this was smart, I don’t know, but it seemed shortsighted to me.
    Disclaim: I do pretty basic research, so I’m biased. I also think government has a role to support public health that no company wants to do when there’s no money in it, though private health insurance companies might also take some interest. Cue the eat-your-vegies commercial.

  3. windriven – the NCCAM doesn’t make your point, because that is the direct result of congressional meddling in the scientific funding process. The NIH did not ask for NCCAM, nor did the scientific community. This was rammed down their throats by Tom Harkin for his own ideological purposes. Now, scientists are following the funding, as I said. The NCCAM is an example of too much political intrusion into science funding.

    On your main point, I agree that Congress has a responsibility to make sure that tax payer dollars spent on funding scientific research is well spent. The question is – how do they do that? Not by having politicians micromanage research funding. Just let the scientific community decide – with guidelines and transparency. Sure, the occasional speculative or even kooky study will get funded, but that is the price of the intellectual freedom that is necessary for the funding process to be maximally effective. The alternative would be a disaster.

  4. Eugenie Mielczarek says:

    Steve,
    Thank you for a heads up on this disastrous concept which will destroy basic science. A model for this already exists, congressional legislation which created the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. With essentially zero input from peer review by scientists the 2 billion dollars expended by the center has funded teaching of violations of the laws of science, homeopathy, distance healing, ESP etc. Our two studies ( Measuring Mythology and Nurturing Non –Science ) tracking the money of this politically driven process exposed the waste of NIH funds which could have been used for science driven medical research .
    The peer review process at DOD, DOE , NIH and NSF is hampered by a lack of funds but replacing it with congressional cronyism is stupid. There are few scientists in congress and even they have refused to speak out during socially driven political forces. Consider the silence of both congress and the President’s Council on Science and Technology during a previous administration when the teaching of evolution was under attack .

    Eugenie Mielczarek

  5. David Gorski says:

    The third criterion may sound like a way to avoid waste, but it is hopelessly naive about how science progresses. Duplicative research is a good thing. One reason is that independent replication is vital to scientific advance. That provision looks like it was written by someone who thinks that a single study is sufficient to establish a scientific finding.

    Gonna have to disagree with you rather strongly here, Steve. The idea here is clearly that the government shouldn’t be funding projects that are substantially similar to each other at the same time, which is wasteful. Notice that it says “is not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies,” not “is not duplicative of other research projects that have been funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.” (Emphasis mine.) There’s nothing in the third criterion to stop the funding of confirmatory research projects. Indeed, nearly all research grants tend to build on research that has gone before, which means they are at least in part confirmatory. The intent of that criterion is more along the lines of preventing research projects that studying basically the same thing in the same (or a very similar) way from being funded at the same time by the government.

    While you have a point that duplicative research is a good thing in concept, in the real world there’s nothing that says that, in these days of highly constrained research funding (and, believe me, I know how constrained it really is—something like the 6th percentile from the NIH, worse from many other agencies), the government should be funding duplicative studies when doing so would tie up money that could go to other promising studies that aren’t duplicative. It really is a zero sum game right now.

  6. Steven: The congressman just wanted more transparency in the grant awards process, to be publicly released on the website. I dont see any attempt to cut funding to basic science, he could have worded it better maybe to make it more clear.

  7. Angora Rabbit says:

    Steven, I read this and my first thought was, is today April 1 or May 1? Thank you for highlighting another misguided attempt by the ignorant to set research priorities. I’m old enough to remember the late Sen. Bill Proxmire (my senator, in fact). Great guy and admirable in many ways. But because his father had been a physician, the Senator decided that made him also an expert on science. Hence his Golden Fleece awards that revealed more about Proxmire’s scientific ignorance than any level of inappropriate research funding.

    Speaking as a permanent member of a NIH study section for four years, chair for a fifth year, and have racked enough bonus points to submit my grants whenever, the draft by Rep Smith is another attempt to control a private agenda, and to fix what ain’t broken. His is the attitude that generates a Lysenko.* For the most part, study section members are smart and can make good judgments. For those readers who don’t write proposals, note that every proposal must now include a section on “Significance” and on “Innovation.” Similarly, proposal review sheets have specific sections to evaluate Significance and Innovation, in addition to the usuals (approach, investigators, insitution). The proposal has to have a few sentences that talk about significance to the lay reader.

    Study sections are perfectly aware of these criteria and I have witnessed many discussions directly around these points. We don’t need a politician who doesn’t/won’t take the time to understand, then dictating what gets funded to the delight of his own ignorance. This is a recipe for bad science.

    Although, David, if the Koch Bros are behind this, then you should be delighted because they apparently live in mortal (literally) terror of the disease. :)

    *Upon reflection, one could sardonically argue that the attempt is allied with a Commie plot. Strikes me that it’s a Free Market Virtue to select the best proposals by direct competition (study section review) rather than by a political elite.

  8. windriven says:

    @Dr. Novella

    “the NCCAM doesn’t make your point, because that is the direct result of congressional meddling in the scientific funding process. The NIH did not ask for NCCAM, nor did the scientific community.”

    True enough but that didn’t stop NCCAM from being populated with staff holding advanced science degrees. My larger point was that a portion of the scientific community is complicit in wastefully funding bullcrap research. It wouldn’t matter if research funding were an unlimited resource but clearly that is not the case.

    I certainly agree that Congress is not well composed to make decisions on the scientific merit of this or that bit of research. The science community would do itself a favor by calling bullshit from time to time rather than looking the other way. It would do itself an even greater favor making it its business to sell research funding to Congress in an organized way.

    Building on Dr. Gorski’s comment above, research funding shouldn’t be a zero sum game. But more funding has to be earned – and earned by the rules of politics, not just the rules of science.

  9. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    In Russia, they allowed Trofim Lysenko to “guide” the research on food production, allowing political rhetoric to determine empirical results. The practical results weren’t great.

    Nixon’s War on Cancer was premature, occurring before there was any understanding of the biology of cancer. The result was the application of combinations of toxic compounds in the highest dose you could get without killing the patient – and it is from here we get the image of chemotherapy being closer to torture than treatment. This is from my recall of The Emperor of All Maladies, and I believe current chemotherapy is far less toxic because it was found that lower doses still worked without the patient having to experience the brutal doses that were used. Dr. Gorski may be able to correct me if I’m wrong.

    One thing I would like to see would be an example of politics having a positive effect on science. The Manhattan Project is not such an example – Groves ensured the scientists had adequate resources and was essentially hands-off the actual work.

    @Dr. Gorski:

    The intent of that criterion is more along the lines of preventing research projects that studying basically the same thing in the same (or a very similar) way from being funded at the same time by the government.

    Wouldn’t the peer review process within the NIH itself essentially take care of this? The reviewers there would know what work is ongoing, thus be in a position to say what is duplicative, does bullet 3 merely empower them to actually take action? Certainly they would be in a better position to know that most administrators and definitely any congressperson. In Canada medical researchers are specifically prohibited from submitting the same application to multiple funding bodies.

    Bullet 1 seems the most poised to kill basic research, bullet 2′s first half is just stupid (or could be argued to support basic research) but the second half is another basic-research-killer. Bullet 3 just seems like the kind of good fiscal management that would already be part of the NIH, not to mention incentivised by the practice of scientific resarch and publication in the first place.

  10. David – I see your point. I do feel that the peer-review process is the best way to determine if a study is useful or wasteful. “Duplicative” can be tricky – how similar is too similar.

    I’m still left with the concern that these rules are crafted to sound reasonable but are designed to be used as an ax to attack ideologically unfavorable research.

    FBA – there are two actions here. One is a call for transparency, which again sounds reasonable but is targeting specific grants. The other is a proposed bill that would impose a level of congressional oversight into the granting process that would be disruptive and counterproductive.

    It’s similar to many creationist strategies, like teaching the “strengths and weaknesses” or encouraging students to think critically and question presented theories. It all sounds reasonable, but you have to read the intent of how such laws are meant to be implemented.

    Such laws, like this one, are unnecessary. The peer-review process already takes care of it. The purpose is to create a political lever to meddle as desired.

  11. David Gorski says:

    Wouldn’t the peer review process within the NIH itself essentially take care of this? The reviewers there would know what work is ongoing, thus be in a position to say what is duplicative, does bullet 3 merely empower them to actually take action?

    The might be in a position to know what’s funded by the NIH, but, having served on a couple of study sections as an ad hoc reviewer and knowing a lot of people who are regular study section members, I know that they often don’t check. In fact, unless they make an effort to check NIH RePORTER, they often don’t know what ends up being funded and what doesn’t by just the NIH, because all a study section does is review grants and assign scores. It doesn’t decide which applications do and don’t get funded. (True, in this environment of paylines around the 7th percentile or even lower, it’s pretty easy to know that only the applications with scores below the 10th percentile are likely even to have a chance of getting funded.) That doesn’t even begin to consider all the other agencies that fund research, such as the NSF, the DoD, the DoE, etc. Peer reviewers in each agency might know or have an idea of what’s been funded before (although, again, even then they might not), but they often have no idea what other agencies are funding.

    This is the sort of thing that is better checked at the agency level. At the NIH, at least, they’re pretty good at sniffing out duplicative applications, such as submitting in essence the same project under different mechanisms. In any case, as Steve also rightly mentioned, what worries me about this bill is the emphasis on “practical” research that will yield short term benefits. That’s the far greater threat than a bit on whether or not duplicative research should be funded.

  12. David Gorski says:

    David – I see your point. I do feel that the peer-review process is the best way to determine if a study is useful or wasteful. “Duplicative” can be tricky – how similar is too similar.

    That is, quite frankly, a policy and political decision more than it is a scientific decision, although science informs it. Moreover, agencies make that decision all the time; it’s really unavoidable. The NIH, for instance, has criteria for when an application is too similar to another application by the same applicant. For instance, the NIH only allows one resubmission after an application is rejected. If that resubmission is also not funded, then the NIH states that any new applications have to be “substantially different,” and it even has criteria for what constitutes “substantially different.” Those criteria, admittedly, are vexing and often confusing, but they exist.

    Personally, as an investigator, I welcome a tighter ban on funding duplicative research. There are unimaginative investigators out there who manage to get funded over and over again by basically writing the same grant over and over, just with variations on a theme. It’s blatantly obvious what they’re doing, but because of the good ol’ boy network they can sometimes score multiple R01s, while young investigators can’t get funded, considerations of “significance” and “innovation” notwithstanding. I’d be willing to bet that Angora Rabbit even knows of a few examples.

    There are more considerations than just science and peer review in what science gets funded, and it is entirely reasonable to try to prevent the funding of needlessly duplicative projects in a highly constrained funding environment. We can certainly disagree on the criteria to judge what is “needlessly duplicative” or at what stage it is best to figure that out, but I doubt we disagree on the principle, at least not by much. I view such a pronouncement as being along the lines of “make sure your water is wet.” I also suppose you could object to it on the basis that it is so frikkin’ obvious and should already be taken care of.

    I’m far more worried about the attempts to restrict research funding to only “practical” or applicable research, along with other attempts to pidgeonhole research. Even worse about this bill is the clear attempt to eliminate or downplay the peer review process:

    http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2013/04/us-lawmaker-proposes-new-criteri-1.html

    I’ve said it before many times. Translational research in medicine depends on a robust pipeline of basic science research whose translational potential can be explored. If that pipeline dries up, translational research will suffer greatly. Attacking basic research is a penny-wise and pound foolish strategy. I’d focus on that, and if it take throwing a bone to fiscal responsibility in the form of tightening up restrictions on duplicative research, to preserve basic science funding, well, that’s a small price to pay as far as I’m concerned.

  13. David Gorski says:

    Hence his Golden Fleece awards that revealed more about Proxmire’s scientific ignorance than any level of inappropriate research funding.

    Don’t get me started on the Golden Fleece Awards. Pure anti-elitist and anti-scientific idiocy, they were…

  14. Dave – that sounds reasonable. Thanks for your perspective.

  15. playreader says:

    I am disappointed whenever I come across just-so statements like the following on a supposedly skeptic blog:

    “The government certainly has the right, and in fact the duty, to ensure that this money is well-invested”

    My hope is that, with time, skeptics will learn to extend their critical thinking skills also to the area of philosophy (the above statement is an explicitly philosophical statement) where there is just as much “bad science” as anywhere else.

  16. windriven says:

    @playreader

    “extend their critical thinking skills also to the area of philosophy” and political philosophy, I might add.

    I couldn’t agree more. But I fail to see the disconnect with Dr. Gorski’s assertion. The government collects the money through taxes. That part is indisputable. So are you questioning the right/duty to manage the disbursements or the propriety of insisting that it be well-invested?

  17. David Gorski says:

    Actually, Steve said that bit about the government’s duty to see that the our tax money is well invested, but I also agree. Is playreader saying that the government doesn’t have the right and duty to ensure that it invests our tax dollars as well as possible?

  18. windriven says:

    “Steve said that bit…” I knew it one heartbeat after I hit the send button, David. I was hoping it would slide by unnoticed ;-)

    Perhaps playreader will follow up. I’m guess that s/he is suggesting that government needn’t have a role in R&D funding. I’d like to understand the proposed alternative mechanism.

  19. goodnightirene says:

    “I’m still left with the concern that these rules are crafted to sound reasonable but are designed to be used as an ax to attack ideologically unfavorable research.”

    Bingo.–especially given the source of this proposed legislation.

    Dr. Gorski, while I think you make important points that would be credible in a normal context. Rep. Smith is a right wing, fundamentalist-type who thinks we don’t need no stinkin’ science and wants to stifle research for reasons he is too thick to even comprehend.

    @windriven

    I liked your argument and found it novel, but on further thought, I don’t see why we have to “sell” science. It has previously, and should again, stand on its own merit. I think you and I mostly agree, but there is probably a generational gap that gives us rather different world views–mine probably being hopelessly mired in the past. I try to “keep up” as it were, but nostalgia creeps in.

  20. windriven says:

    @goodnightirene

    “I don’t see why we have to “sell” science.”

    I could give you a number of reasons but the one at the heart of my argument here is that we need to sell science to Congress because they have the power of the purse – they ultimately control the budgets of everything from NIH to DARPA.

    Most Congresspeople have only the barest acquaintance with science. Some of them are blithering idiots like Tom Harkin and Paul Broun. But many are ignorant rather than stupid. Don’t think of it as selling, think of it as educating.

  21. playreader says:

    @windriven, Dr. Gorski

    My apologies for being somewhat unclear in my previous post. Within the framework of today’s politics I certainly agree that the government has the duty to ensure the tax money is well spent, and I also share the concern over political influence on scientific progress.

    The intention was to point out that the topics on SBM, as well as many other skeptically-oriented web sites, are largely written, and judged, from the perspective of utilitarianism (i.e. the philosophy). It might be that this reflects the supposed philosophical trend of society, but then again, skeptics don’t usually judge a novel illness treatment from the perspective of CAM just because the latter has a broad cultural acceptance. This because skeptics have high demands for the objective validity of a claim about something in reality. As it stands today, however, many skeptics forgo these high demands for validity as soon as they enter the realm of philosophy and politics, where a given philosophical framework is treated not as a claim, but as a self-evident axiom not needing any proof of validity.

    I would like to see skeptics extend their critical inquiries from “does homeopathy work?” to “is it valid to tax a person in order to fund homeopathy research? (or any research)”

    Kind regards,
    playreader

  22. windriven says:

    Neil Degrasse Tyson sums up pretty well why we need to sell science to Congress:

    http://www.frequency.com/video/neil-dgrasse-tyson-we-stopped-dreaming/36786692/

  23. windriven says:

    “[T]he topics on SBM, as well as many other skeptically-oriented web sites, are largely written, and judged, from the perspective of utilitarianism.”

    I’m not entirely sure which ethical stance you would choose to replace utilitarianism.

    “I would like to see skeptics extend their critical inquiries from “does homeopathy work?” to “is it valid to tax a person in order to fund homeopathy research? (or any research)”

    Here you seem – and I hope you’ll correct me if I’m wrong – to suggest an extreme form of libertarianism. As a recovering libertarian I understand the appeal. But long study of human nature has convinced me it is philosophical pyrite. Libertarianism might work fine for you and me and Charles Murray … not so much for most other people.

    But returning to the immediate point, can we agree that we all benefit from the existence of a system of justice (police, courts, etc.)? The absence of such a system suggests that we would each necessarily spend a great deal of our time and effort protecting ourselves and our property from the predation of others. The time spent in this endeavor is time that we could not spend otherwise pursuing happiness.

    A similar case can be made for funding scientific research. We all benefit from the progress of science. Where is the ethical foundation for a system that provides broad benefits to all and sundry but is funded only by those whose conscience demands it? Or should the result of scientific inquiry be kept to those who fund it? In that world if Dr. Gorski finds a cure for breast cancer and you haven’t contributed, then you’re just going to die if you develop breast cancer.

  24. Scott says:

    I would like to see skeptics extend their critical inquiries from “does homeopathy work?” to “is it valid to tax a person in order to fund homeopathy research? (or any research)”

    So you want the Science-Based Medicine blog to abandon questions related to science and medicine, because you think skepticism should only be about politics?

  25. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    I would like to see skeptics extend their critical inquiries from “does homeopathy work?” to “is it valid to tax a person in order to fund homeopathy research? (or any research)”

    No.

    Adopting as I do “a given philosophical framework is treated not as a claim, but as a self-evident axiom not needing any proof of validity” makes responding to such questions easy.

  26. Artour says:

    Public research ignores one major breathing therapy that suggests that the cause of chronic diseases is hyperventilation cauisng low body oxygen content:
    http://www.normalbreathing.com/buteyko-method.php
    This page has a Table with dozens of studies that proved that people with asthma, heart disease, diabetes, and many other conditions have too heavy breathing at rest. Over 160 Soviet and Russian doctors applied this method on their patients in the USSR and Russia.
    Even though most people that it is good to breathe more and deeper, thousands of studies showed that overbreathing reduces O2 levels in body cells.

  27. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    Can we start deleting artour’s posts as spam?

  28. Sawyer says:

    I’m really hoping Artour’s spam convinces someone at SBM to do a post on breatharian idiocy this week.

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