$697,177 for a ‘Climate-Change Musical’: You Call That Science?

Research is often a wise investment of tax dollars—but agencies also fund ridiculous boondoggles.

 
 

 
PHOTO: ISTOCK

Research is the lifeblood of technological innovation, which drives economic growth and keeps America competitive. Government-funded scientific research runs the gamut from studies of basic physical and biological processes to the development of applications to meet immediate needs. Unfortunately, the definition of what constitutes “science” has gradually expanded to include sociology, economics and woo-woo “alternative medicine.” Much of the spending on these disciplines by the nation’s two major funders of nonmilitary research, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, is systematically shortchanging taxpayers.

The NSF, whose mission is to ensure U.S. leadership in areas of science and technology that are essential to economic growth and national security, frequently funds politically correct but low-value research projects. A few doozies include the veiling-fashion industry in Turkey, Viking textiles in Iceland, the “social impacts” of tourism in the northern tip of Norway, and whether hunger causes couples to fight (using the number of pins stuck in voodoo dolls as a measure of aggressive feelings). Research funding in the geosciences, including climate change, is certainly legitimate, but not when it goes to ludicrous boondoggles such as a climate-change musical that cost $697,177 to produce. 

The primary culprit is the NSF’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences, known as SBE. Underlying its ability to dispense grants is the wrongheaded notion that social-science projects such as a study of animal depictions in National Geographic and a climate change musical are as important as research to identify early markers for Alzheimer’s disease or pancreatic cancer.

In January President Obama signed the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, which accomplished little with respect to setting funding priorities other than endorsing the only two criteria NSF had previously used to evaluate grant applications—the “intellectual merit” of the proposal and its “broader impacts” on society. The bill’s lead proponent, House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, had wanted to include a “national interest” criterion defined by several factors including improving economic competitiveness, health, national security, the STEM workforce and scientific literacy.

In the end the national interest standard was retained, but only to provide examples of how grant applicants can satisfy NSF’s “broader impacts” requirement. In other words, SBE will continue funding marginal research by social scientists—what a former NSF official characterized as “the inmates running the asylum.”

As for the NIH, most of its budget—currently about $32 billion, with another $2 billion in the just-approved omnibus spending bill—goes to fund grant proposals from researchers all over the country. The proposals are not judged by their merits across all disciplines, but are divided by categories of research—cancer, aging, eye, etc. But one institute that is the brainchild of politicians—the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (formerly the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine)—on average does far-less-significant work than the others, but receives a significant amount of grant funding.

NCCIH’s stated mission is “to define, through rigorous scientific investigation, the usefulness and safety of complementary and integrative health interventions and their roles in improving health and health care.” But “complementary and integrative” often means implausible and poorly designed, because peer review at this institute permits the funding of such projects.

One study supported by the center found that cranberry juice cocktail was no better than a placebo at preventing recurring urinary-tract infections. Other supported studies include “Long-Term Chamomile Therapy of Generalized Anxiety Disorder,” “The Use of Narrative in Public Health Research and Practice” and “Restorative Yoga for Therapy of the Metabolic Syndrome.” 

The more credible studies in research fields funded by NCCIH could be administered more effectively by other NIH components, such as the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke or the National Institute of Mental Health, where they would undergo more rigorous peer review.

In 2016, NIH could afford to fund fewer than 20% of the investigator-initiated research grant proposals it received. That NCCIH is still allowed to spend $124 million annually is an affront to the NIH-funded researchers who are at the cutting edge of their disciplines and face increasing difficulty getting federal funding for studies that rank highly on scientific merit.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has projected that China will overtake the U.S. in research and development spending by around 2019. If the U.S. is to remain competitive in medical and scientific innovation we must increase overall spending—and also be more discerning about the nation’s research priorities. A good first step would be for the scientific community to demand that politicians forego political correctness and prioritize funding for research that is in America’s best interest.

Dr. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was founding director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Biotechnology.

Appeared in the May. 13, 2017, print edition.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/697-177-for-a-climate-change-musical-you-call-that-science-1494625499

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