Coming up short on the economy and on scientific research

We’ve already discussed how the “education” portion of the Democrats’ stimulus package is both weak on economic stimulation and suspect in terms of education. The same criticism seems to apply to the money being appropriated to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The sums are considerably smaller than what’s going for education, but they still amount to billions.

Granting money to NIH for scientific research is unlikely to provide much stimulus “bang” for the buck. It won’t bring many idle resources back into use, though some researchers will make out well. (Perhaps the price of homes in my neighborhood, not far from NIH, will rebound a little bit).

Moreover, as with the spending on education, there’s a good case that the increase in NIH funding will finance a broken status quo. That, at least, is the argument of the animal rights organization In Defense of Animals. It argues that “the NIH grant awards system is fundamentally broken, and has a history of oversight problems.” It also contends (with some support in the research literature) that the doubling of NIH’s budget between 1998 and 2003 contributed to these failings.

Animal rights groups obviously have an agenda that is unfriendly to NIH, whose research projects involve lots of experimentation on animals. However, in a letter to Harry Reid, In Defense of Animals presented substantial evidence to back up its critique of NIH. For example, Dr. Brian Martinson, a researcher who headed-up an NIH-funded survey, has published results indicating high percentages of self-reported scientific misbehavior on NIH-funded projects, ranging from falsifying data, to using inadequate research designs, to using funds from one project to complete another, to cutting corners to complete a project. 28 percent of “early-career” respondents admitted to cooking data, dropping or overlooking data points, and/or failing to present data that contradicts their previous research. 50 percent admitted that they cut corners. For midcareer researchers, the percentages were 27 and 66, respectively.

NIH research grants also increasingly favor older researchers, even though the most dramatic innovations usually come from the young. One study showed that in 1980, 22 percent of NIH grants went to researchers age 35 or younger, but in 2005, only 3 percent did. Meanwhile the percentage of grants going to scientists age 45 or older increased from 22 to 77 percent, with those over 55 being the largest gainers.

Finally, one doesn’t need to be an animal rights advocate to question some of the studies that have been supported by federal tax money. They include: the toy perference of monkeys; the nipple preference of infant monkeys; the effect of high fat diets on wakefulness in mice (it makes them fat and sleepy); the effect of cocaine on Jananese quail; the effect of increased in-utero testosterone exposure on the masculinity of screams in female juvenile monkeys; the effect of capture, handling and cage on free-ranging primates (not good, especially on mothers with infants); the effect of sleep deprivation on old and young rats (older ones take longer to recover); etc.

In sum, there is no sound reason for appropriating extra billions of dollars for NIH without first (1) adding safeguards to ensure the money is spent judiciously and (2) considering more generally how to reform NIH’s grant procedures and practices. Like so many other aspects of the package, this money will not provide substantial short-term economic stimulus. Its benefits, if any, will be longer term. Thus, there is no basis for by-passing the inquiry that would (or should) normally be associated with a spending increase of this magnitude.

Indeed, doing so in this context is inconsistent with President Obama’s promise to “restore science to its rightful place.”

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