National Institutes of Health

Upset About Budget Cuts to the National Institutes of Health? Blame the National Institutes of Health

The NIH's track record suggest that Trump's proposed $6 billion budget cut won't be the end of science, progress, or discoveries.

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Andrew Seng/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Scientists and fans of science are getting all worked up over a proposed 20 percent cut to the budget of the National Institutes of Health. If they're looking for someone to blame for those cuts, they can start by blaming the National Institutes of Health.

Seriously. From funding experiments that gave cocaine to quails and rats, to studying the sex habits of hamsters and goldfish, there are few parts of the federal government that have made a better case for budget cut than the NIH.

Adrienne LaFrance has a piece at The Atlantic that takes the hysteria over President Donald Trump's first budget proposal to new heights. The budget, which includes a cut of $6 billion to the NIH, has scientists bracing for "a lost generation in American science," according to LaFrance, who says scientists told her that the "consequences of such a dramatic reduction in public spending on science and medicine would be deadly."

One of those scientists, Peter Hotez, the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, tells LaFrance that the proposed cuts "would bring American biomedical science to a halt and forever shut out a generation of young scientists."

Please.

Behind all the hysterics is one simple fact. Even if Trump's budget cuts are enacted, as proposed, by Congress (which they won't be), the NIH would be funded at the same level as it was in 2003. That's less than 15 years ago. It's hardly a return to the Dark Ages—heck, that's hardly a return to the pre-iPhone ages—or to the era when smallpox and polio were running rampant. If the generation of young scientists that went to school in the 1990s and early 2000s managed to survive and get funding for research without the NIH at its current levels, then surely the next generation will.

Before going any further, though, an important note on Trump's budget. It's terrible. His proposed cuts are not a serious effort at reducing the size of the federal government, but rather a way to pay for a mostly useless wall on the border with Mexico and to feed the Pentagon more money ($52 billion more, to be exact), so the military can flush it down the toilet of endless wars, overpriced weapons systems, and who-knows-what-else because not even government auditors can figure out how the Department of Defense manages to waste so much taxpayer money.

The terrible spending decisions in Trump's budget, though, do not make his proposed cuts any less legitimate, and few government agencies have made a better, stronger case for having their own budgets reduced.

More than 80 percent of the NIH's annual budget is used to fund research grants, mostly for universities and post-grad students. While there is plenty of good research funded by the NIH, there's also no shortage of examples that make you wonder if they're secretly conducting a study on how many ridiculous, wasteful studies they can fund before Congress or the president cuts their budget.

Perhaps the most infamous example of pure WTF research funded by the NIH is the $175,000 grant given to the University of Kentucky to study how cocaine affects the sex drives of Japanese quail.

"It's hard to think of a more wasteful use of American taxpayers' money than to give cocaine to quail and studying their sexual habits," deadpanned then-Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) in highlighting the study in his 2011 report on wasteful government spending.

There are plenty of other head-scratching examples, like the $509,000 grant used to study how meth-heads responded to text messages using "gay lingo." The NIH spent more than $2.8 million over four years funding a study to determine why "nearly three-quarters of adult lesbians overweight or obese," and why gay men generally are not. More than $600,000 from the NIH helped finance a study on the sex habits of hamsters, and another $3.6 million from the NIH allowed researchers at Bowdoin College to ponder "what makes goldfish feel sexy?"

My personal favorite is the 2012 NIH-funded study that determined rats on cocaine prefer listening to jazz music instead of classical. Specifically, they like listening to Miles Davis' classic album "Four" more than Beethoven's "Fur Elise." Don't worry, the researchers did the same experiment with rats high on methamphetamine, too, and found that they also enjoy Miles Davis. Cool.

Not to be outdone, researchers at the University of Illinois used a $242,600 NIH grant to get honeybees high on cocaine, ultimately discovering that the intoxicated bees are "about twice as likely to dance" and moved 25 percent faster than sober bees.

Other NIH studies simply prove what everyone already knows, like when a $548,000 grant helped demonstrate that adults over age 30 who frequently binge-drink tend to be less mature than their peers. Or when the NIH spent $666,000 on a study that found watching re-runs of old television shows make people happy, because it gives them an "energizing chance to reconnect with pseudo-friends."

Even when they try to clean up their act, the NIH ends up raising questions about how it's spending taxpayer money. After a government audit found that the NIH had blown $823,000 on a Las Vegas conference (enough to fund five more studies about the drug habits of Japanese quail, can you believe?) in 2010, the agency created new levels of bureaucratic oversight to make sure that didn't happen again. The problem: Bloomberg reported in 2015 that the additional oversight costs as much as $14.6 million annually, roughly equal to how much the agency spends each year researching Hodgkin's disease.

The hilarious examples of waste at the NIH are just a drop in the bucket of the federal deficit, of course, but it certainly seems like the agency could do a little trimming without losing any critical medical research.

Cato Institute

Even without budget cuts, that research is increasingly being driven by the private sector anyway.

In her piece at The Atlantic, LaFrance points out that the federal government funded 60 percent of research and development in the United States in 1965. By 2006, however, more than 65 percent of R&D funding was coming from private sources, she notes.

This, we're meant to believe, is a bad thing. A sign that government—that all of us—is not doing its part to finance the scientific discoveries that make the modern world such a wonderful place to live. For shame.

Get rid of the percentages, though, and a different picture emerges. Funding for the NIH has increased by about 3.5 times between 1970 and 2015 (not quite enough to keep pace with inflation, but pretty close). Most of that increase has been in the past two decades. In just five years, from 2000 through 2004, the NIH's budget grew by a whopping 58 percent, and there was another huge boost in NIH funding during the Obama administration's stimulus program (lots of shovel-ready jobs in labs, one assumes).

There hasn't been a reduction in public funding for research and development, but government funding now makes up a smaller portion of the overall pie because privately funded research has grown so quickly that it's overtaken government as the main patron of science. That's not a bad thing! Sure, privately funded research is subject to approval from corporate overlords at times—in her piece, LaFrance quotes an associate professor of psychiatry at Yale who proclaims that only "sexy, hot" science will get private funding, instead of the tedious research that leads to most important breakthroughs—but if that means fewer studies on why rats like Miles Davis, I think we'll survive.

Similarly, I think we'll be okay if a smaller budget for the NIH means the agency has to prioritize important things like research into deadly diseases ahead of questionably useful studies on the drug habits of Japanese birds, the importance of old television shows, and the sex habits of small mammals.

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  1. National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine

    Wha……

    1. Watch an episode of Monsters Inside Me and you’ll see why that could be a valuable resource.

      1. +1 regrettable Google image search for “botfly larva”

      2. My daughter and I watch that show a lot. One of the greatest things on TV these days.

        1. My boy and I do the same. I love seeing how clueless some doctors are.

  2. This is bad, this is really bad – where will we get our next Bell, Edison, or Gates from if we leave scientific research to the free market? Without government funding, we’ll be stuck with scam artists like Paul Ehrlich and Michael Mann.

    1. +1 population growth

  3. If 80% of the budget goes out in grants, then the funding should not be cut, it should be eliminated.
    If the “scientists” (sexual insect voyeur perverts it sounds like) cannot get private grants to study real medical things, they can always move to Europe to get Government grants.
    (personal note: I prefer Jazz to Classical myself.)

    1. So, you’re saying your father was a rat, and your mother was a hamster?

      1. Did your father smell of Elderberries?

  4. determine why “nearly three-quarters of adult lesbians overweight or obese,” and why gay men generally are not

    Lesbians are men and gays are women. Can I get some of that money now?

    1. Its not that simple.

      You need double blind studies. How many blind lesbians and blind gay men are out there? Its tough work wasting all this taxpayer money.

    2. Yeah, that line gave me pause too… I assumed everyone intuitively knew that men are more likely to be turned on visually? And that women need more of an emotional connection, and they might find that acceptance they’re craving with other women who aren’t being pursued by men? I know that’s definitely not always the case (but I figured the political incorrectness would be okay here), but I was expecting to at least see a nod to this somewhere in the results of this study… there’s a lot of links, but they mostly seem to dance around it. “? thinness is not consistent with dominant cultural standards of masculinity” so gay guys choose to not conform , and “that lesbian/bisexual women had higher cortisol reactivity following exposure to a laboratory stressor than heterosexual women” ? I mean, I can understand being stressed out more in everyday life, but I don’t really buy the “more cortisol for the same stressor” shtick. It just seems a little intellectually dishonest (and a huge waste of resources!) to not explore all possible social factors.

  5. The pathetic lack of alt text aside, this was a good read.

    Other NIH studies simply prove what everyone already knows, like when a $548,000 grant helped demonstrate that adults over age 30 who frequently binge-drink tend to be less mature than their peers.

    How dare you!

  6. get honeybees high on cocaine, ultimately discovering that the intoxicated bees are “about twice as likely to dance” and moved 25 percent faster than sober bees.

    Guess we can stop wondering about what happened to the bees now.

  7. Ok, so rats high on coke and meth prefer Miles Davis to Beethoven, specifically “Four.”

    Anyone want to try and extrapolate something useful from this? Like who the hell doesn’t know that already, Beethoven goes with booze.

    1. Anyone want to try and extrapolate something useful from this?

      I don’t know … something about Negroes and jazz?

  8. or to the era when smallpox and polio were running rampant.

    We refer to that as the time when America was great.

    1. A vaccine for smallpox was developed in the late 18th Century. So smallpox stopped running rampant pretty early in American history. And it was an American who developed the polio vaccine. So, yeah, America was pretty great. Of course, that was back when we had public health professionals who concerned themselves with things like communicable diseases instead of gun control and the obesity problem among lesbians.

  9. The thing that no one in this debate wants to admit is that there is a finite amount of valuable research available. Just because someone with a Ph.D. and a lab has an idea for research, doesn’t mean that it is valuable or worth pursuing. Research is hard. If it were easy, we would have cured every disease a long time ago.

    So throwing more money at “research” doesn’t necessarily accomplish anything beyond giving jobs to PhDs. The only danger of cutting NIH is that the peer review and funding process is really broken. I don’t have a very good feeling at all that the people at NIH do a good job of identifying promising research and funding it. Like every big organization and especially government run organizations, NIH is rife with politics, groupthink, and cronyism. So, cutting funding might not eliminate the useless research. It might eliminate the good research.

    1. Research is hard is correct thats why so many studies done now are actually just studies of previous studies less money needed and you only have to look over other people work and do little themselves. its how most PHD candidates get their thesis completed to become PHD’s. unfortunately their crap studies make it to the news and sometime laws are based on those crap studies

      1. NIH paid for my grad school in cell biology and I worked there for a while, so I have benefitted from their largesse and know a little about how they operate. There is a lot of waste there, especially on admin and overhead, and as John mentioned, it is dominated by politics, so I don’t trust them to make much needed reforms if faced with a budget cut. In fact, I do not expect any budget cuts at all because the research advocates are very powerful forces who can get parents of children with rare diseases and cancer survivors to show up at their congressperson’s office if they even threaten not to increase the budget (never mind cutting it!), so like entitlements, most politicians are too scared to even go there.

      2. “its how most PHD candidates get their thesis completed to become PHD’s.”

        Citation needed.

    2. This dovetails directly into Ron’s many stories on the reproducibility problem in current research. Gee, it’s almost as if hundreds of thousands of people went to college in order to avoid the real world and the government has put in place programs to enable them to never, ever leave their bubble for anything even remotely resembling the real world or real science.

      I’m sure there could be research projects that would be in the public interest that wouldn’t necessarily generate a large payout at the end of it, but I’m having trouble thinking of an example off-hand.

      Either way, this list of research boondoggles sounds like a lot of late 20’s early 30’s adult children figuring out that the best way to get Cocaine is to request it from the Government itself. This is, perhaps surprisingly, exactly my personal experience with grad students & young Ph.D. holders. They do love their pharma baskets.

      1. “enable them to never, ever leave their bubble for anything even remotely resembling the real world or real science.”

        What is “real science?”

        The vast majority of large, impactful scientific research comes from people with academic affiliations. Virtually all of them have public grants.

        That’s certainly not an endorsement of the public model of scientific funding, which I’m very much against. Anybody with even a moderate understanding of market forces realize that if it went away, it would simply shift to private sources of funding because there would be an unmet need. But you gain absolutely zero traction when you suggest that there is an underground of capable scientists that are hibernating and waiting for the day that private funding takes over, so that they can come out and do science. The very same publicly-funded scientists of today would be privately-funded scientists in a libertarian world.

    3. It sounds like you don’t fucking love science.

  10. Bravo! one of the best posts on hit-n-run in quite a while.

  11. Universities waste a significant percentage of NIH funding on “indirect costs,” with some rates being over 100%. The EU capped indirect costs at 25% a couple of years ago. Maybe our government could actually learn something practical that the EU implemented. Indirect costs at a university shouldn’t be any higher than SG&A rates at companies which average 25% across industry sectors.

    1. Not sure if these are included in indirect costs, but the grants also cover 100% of grad student tuition, even at private universities, which can be > than $40K per year for each student. The universities also get to keep IP rights for any patents they create with the grant money, so it is a pretty sweet deal for them.

      1. No, they are not included in indirect costs. Indirect costs are funds that go directly to the university to cover (for the most part) facilities. Successful researchers may reimburse the university their entire salaries (w/ benefits) with grant money, and pay for every supply, piece of equipment, and every member of the personnel — including student stipends and tuition. But there’s rarely an avenue for them to reimburse the university the cost of the actual building, lab space, core/shared facilities, etc. That’s what indirect costs are for.

        At the end of the day, a successful researcher costs the university $0 and provides unparalleled opportunity for its students. Some of us think that universities should bear more of these costs themselves, and that indirect costs should be more restricted. But then tuition dollars may go up some more, and Reason commenters will get angry about that too.

  12. Much like the ‘he gonna make seniors starve” arguement with the CDBG we will never get serious reform until someone gets tough. We need to simply start by walking in and saying okay all Departments including defense get an across the board cut. Start the 1st year at 1%. The respective agencies then are given a timeline to trim their budgets as they want. If they fail then the cut is across the board.

  13. …$175,000 grant given to the University of Kentucky to study how cocaine affects the sex drives of Japanese quail…

    …the 2012 NIH-funded study that determined rats on cocaine prefer listening to jazz music instead of classical. … Don’t worry, the researchers did the same experiment with rats high on methamphetamine, too, and found that they also enjoy Miles Davis…

    …the University of Illinois used a $242,600 NIH grant to get honeybees high on cocaine…

    I’m calling bullshit. These researchers didn’t give cocaine or meth to birds, rats, or honeybees. They faked the results and took the drugs themselves. I guess kudos are in order to them for figuring out a way to get the government to fund their drug habits, though.

    OT; is reason’s commenting system broken beyond repair for anyone else? It took reloading the page about 10 times before I could get this to post. Not wonder they’re always looking for new developers, they can’t find any that are worth a shit.

  14. These stories are very amusing, but, after we have finished laughing, FOUR facts remain:

    1. The very large majority of work funded by NIH is valid and not wasteful.

    2. Our robust non-profit basic-science community is the reason technologies emerge (mostly) HERE IN USA rather than elsewhere. Which means WE get first crack at the profits.

    3. You cannot fund (most) basic science the capitalist way, by persuading folks to invest their savings in hope of scoring profit, because the very large majority of basic-science projects produce no profit for anyone, only a few do, and, it’s very difficult to predict which ones will, and usually the profit comes from accumulation of many projects, not from just one, and, the ones that do produce profit bring profit to someone OTHER THAN the scientists and their financial backers. So cannot be funded the capitalist way. This is why Bill Gates said: “Private companies will ultimately develop these energy breakthroughs, but their work will rely on the kind of basic research that only governments can fund.”

    4. China is patiently pursuing a long-term strategy to usurp our position as the world’s primary problem-solver and high-tech innovator, by funding lots of basic science there.

    1. FOUR factsTHREE evidence-free assertions and ONE appeal to nationalism remain

      Fixed it for you.

      1. Intelligent Mr Toad

        I’m guessing “Intelligent” is one of those ironic nick-names. Like a really big guy called “Tiny” or something.

      2. I think calling for evidence in this case is a little….odd. The article itself didn’t offer any evidence of waste at the NIH, it just picked out a few studies that are easy to mock. That is not evidence of waste, that’s creating a narrative.

        1. Those mockable studies are evidence of waste.

          Maybe you’d like to try and explain how studying the musical preferences of rats high on cocaine or meth, or the sexual habits of hamsters or goldfish advances human health?

          1. Specifically, no, of course I can’t do that. But I do know that a major component of neuroscience is animal research. In fact, my brother is a neuroscientist. As best as I can understand it, he gives rats cocaine and studies the effects on their brains.

            These are the studies that lead to the study that lead to the study that becomes the next drug breakthrough. I’m leery of dismissing them because they sound silly to layman.

          2. Have you read the studies or even the grant proposal? It’s all publicly available.

            (hint: it’s not about what you think it’s about)

          3. Dave Ss, see my post below regarding the Japanese Quail studies, i put a link there to the actual studies for you to see that this article is misleading the unsuspecting readers like you.

            This studies could lay a foundation to a solution for food source, food cost, US export, nature conservation, and more. As an example think of what if you could produce cows 100 times easier than what you can now.

            Many studies are done to understand the mechanism of how a biological structure works. For example, what part of brain reacts to what dominant frequencies, what biological elements cause that, how and why? This could lead to a further understanding of the complex brain structure and offer a solution to certain brain disorder (because we would know what causes it and how the causal element can be controlled or supplied).

            Many studies are snippet (a small part of of larger problems), or you could think of them as a building block.

    2. The very large majority of work funded by NIH is valid and not wasteful.

      And the majority of the NIH budget remains intact in this proposal.

    3. Citations needed.

    4. 1) I wouldn’t call that a fact on it’s own, but I would hope it’s true. Knowing the government, I wouldn’t say it’s a given.

      2) I think one of the points of the article was that this was more true back around the 1960’s and is actually becoming less true these days. What ‘public science’ did the invention of the iPhone use that made it possible? (As an example)

      3) If this was true, one would think the FDA would do a lot of primary research yet pharma companies pay trillions to do the research themselves. Why?

      4) China has been very literally ripping off patents & designs from the United States since the 1970’s. What, exactly, is their incentive to innovate when they can just get all the beneficial parts they want for free?

      1. What, exactly, is their incentive to innovate when they can just get all the beneficial parts they want for free?

        China has 4.7 million STEM graduates. India has 2.6 million STEM graduates. The US has 570,000 STEM graduates. Russia has 560,000 STEM graduates. Iran has 335,000 STEM graduates. Indonesia has 200,000 STEM graduates. I believe these are 2016 graduates.

        THOSE are the people who have the incentive to innovate and most of them are not directly motivated by the VC/entrepreneurial/business side of things – but by the thinking/invention/research side of their skillset.

      2. I feel like you (and others who think the NIH should be cut) are missing the point of public funding of the sciences a bit. Asking “well what great inventions has it made lately” is setting up public funding to fail. In my mind, public funding is largely meant to “fail.” Essentially, the government funds the projects that have so little chance of turning in to profit that private institutions wouldn’t bother. These projects are the first steps down paths to things we can’t even imagine yet. Once a field or study shows real promise, a private company will pursue it.

        Now I’m well aware of the fact that I seem to be saying “throw money at government research and don’t ask question,” and I guess I sort of am. But we’re a rich country. I see the value of spending a nominal amount, relative to GDP, on science research that probably wouldn’t get done at all otherwise.

        1. I generally agree with this. Research outcomes/value can’t be predicted ahead of time – and unless it meets an IRR criteria, the market won’t do it.

          I do think though that even the fruitless research should produce some ‘salvage value’ that the private sector also won’t produce (because the private sector will never research openly and risk potential property/process value) – and all of it should be held accountable for producing some ‘salvage value’. Whether cocaine-binging rats prefer jazz to classical or rock or easy listening is almost certainly fruitless – but that is oddly exactly the sort of research that can be leveraged even when fruitless – IF the research process is opened up to the public. It is the sort of experiment that can show kids how scientific experiments are structured. And it is the sort of oddball connection that – when and only when opened up – is the source of most creativity. The sort of thing that a company whose own researchers – in whatever field – are ‘stuck’ on something can use as a creativity breakthrough tool.

        2. This is why you cannot cut government spending.

          How are you going to justify cutting something like Medicare when the NIH is sacrosanct from cuts?

          You won’t balance anything cutting military only.

          1. You won’t balance anything cutting military only.

            And you ain’t gonna cut military by cutting NIH in order to increased funding for military

        3. I concede that it is possible, as the 1960’s moonshot programs evidenced, but to say it never would have happened naturally is a question we don’t have an answer for at the moment. I question it’s efficiency and, in all the listed cases and presumably a number of those not listed, it’s simply a no brainer that the study in question was unlikely to result in any obvious benefit to mankind in general.

          As for China in particular, I fail to see what graduating numbers have to do with much since a Chinese STEM researcher could just as easily be tasked with reverse engineering something as opposed to researching said thing from the ground up.

          Obviously they have their own innovations, but at least within the memorable past their modus operandi has been blatant plagiarism by-and-large.

          Either way, a 20% cut would force them to reconsider studies on if cats really do hate dogs etc.

          1. Sure a STEM graduate can be tasked with anything menial – and for China/India in particular their basic economic infrastructure for now is more easily copied from others than innovated from scratch.

            But doing the menial is not what motivates the STEM graduate. In the long-term, the sheer number or % of STEM graduates in that economy is going to be what drives innovation in that economy – some of whom will be purely technicians and some more than that.

            It should be obvious by now that the private sector won’t ever do shit to build that pipeline because they have been spending the last few decades letting that pipeline empty. Sending research and transferring technology overseas (for those STEM graduates to work on) and importing others publicly-funded STEM pipelines is what they are doing and that diminishes the domestic pipeline. AFAIK, they don’t actually do ANYTHING serious to fund a future pipeline (public or private) even though they are the obvious beneficiaries of increased STEM supply. Probably every single one will admit that the reason they don’t is because they CAN’T do that alone/independently – but they clearly ain’t interested in paying for it either.

            1. I’m glad to see that you agree, but am disappointed that you wanted to take two paragraphs to then retract the agreement.

              The only point in my book is that while furthering science is a noble goal it shouldn’t be the task of the United States government to both sponsor and choose which projects are worth while.

              Ironically, you’ve pointed out that the end’s of a study can not be predicted yet you advocate for central planning in science around outcomes. I think you should reflect on this more because your points are all over the place.

              ‘Science’ has been furthered throughout history; through both Catholic theocracy and all the way up past the Nazi. I think it can survive a 20% budget cut.

              1. (And to be clear, the NIH isn’t ‘science’ it’s merely the governments approved and sanctioned science apparatus which should also give you pause.)

                1. Well – you let me know when the NIH prohibits private science. Until then it ain’t remotely ‘central planning’. It is infrastructure – which may or may not be excessive/distorting. But in that case, there is some burden of evidence on you to show that it is actually distorting something. I’ve actually done that here when I assert that it is reducing the number of STEM graduates by not conducting research openly. That closedness – and also the abdication of property rights to others – is also a problem. But neither of those is a mere budget problem.

            2. Why is the “domestic pipeline” important? This sounds like just another nationalist argument.

              The NIH (mostly) funds American labs. That’s not good enough? Why does it matter if the principal investigator who runs that lab opts to hire a Chinese postdoc to work for him (ie. the American lab)? Is there a particular reason the postdoc should be of American descent?

              1. The NIH (mostly) funds American labs. That’s not good enough?

                Yes and no. I don’t give a crap about the citizenship of the researcher. I’ve already said that I want that research process opened up – and the NIH centers distributed around the country. THAT is what will increase the domestic pipeline.

                And yeah – I’m no globalist. If you are, then please explain why the NIH shouldn’t just fund basic research labs in China and India. Much cheaper than here.

                1. Are they stealing American jobs? I’m not sure what your rationale is. You don’t want American labs hiring the best candidates possible?

                  1. You’re the one turning this into some jerbs program. I don’t care about the jerbs. I care about the transparency – to Americans – of PUBLIC research – spending American dollars.

                    If this is just about jerbs; then NIH should be completely eliminated, everyone fired, every grant recipient permanently blacklisted – and then we can start over from scratch with people who understand what public research means.

                    1. Agreed about jobs and job programs.

                      But I’m confused about the point you made about STEM graduates overseas and what that has to do with the NIH. You’ve mentioned transparency several times, but it’s not clear to me what you mean by it exactly. The details of every NIH funded project are publicly available, study section information is (sort of) available, program directors are accessible (and in my experience, responsive), personnel listings are public, salaries and expenditures are sometimes available, and most importantly — results of the research are published publicly. Even data generated are very often made available (and this is becoming more common).

                      I actually can’t think of a single government program that is more transparent.

        4. “Essentially, the government funds the projects that have so little chance of turning in to profit that private institutions wouldn’t bother. ”

          Not how it works at all. Most drugs, for example, are ultimately based on publicly-funded/conducted basic science research that reveals underlying physiological, molecular, and (where applicable) behavioral mechanisms that are several steps upstream from drug development. Why don’t private industries fund it? BECAUSE THEY DON’T HAVE TO.

          1. The US pharma industry was created by a USDA lab ‘winning’ the competition to figure out how to produce lots of penicillin. Pfizer (i think) also came up with its own process – but the rest of the industry bought USDA licenses. And the entire first generation of antibiotics (streptomycin, tetracyclines, etc) through the late-1950’s was a direct consequence of those companies creating research departments to leverage the fermentation process. Those profits built their entire research function. There was one more research spurt (early60’s to late70’s) with a new synthesizing process when fermentation reached its limits – but everything since then has been merely combinations of existing things not original anything. Not one new class of antibiotics since the 1980’s.

            And the reality is that the pharmas are not doing basic research on resistance/mutation (23,000 deaths per year in the US – plus the million cases (240,000 deaths) of sepsis in the US per year which was the motivation for penicillin research in the first place) – even with a now empty pipeline of new antibiotics – because it directly threatens existing profit pipelines. THAT is the rational reason existing private companies will always do less basic research than is needed.

      3. RE: “What ‘public science’ did the invention of the iPhone use that made it possible?”

        Is that a serious question? Lots of the basic science which enables electronics was funded by government.

        RE: “3) If this was true, one would think the FDA would do a lot of primary research yet pharma companies pay trillions to do the research themselves. Why?”

        The research pharma companies submit to FDA (when seeking approval for new drugs or medical devices) is APPLIED research, not BASIC research. I am talking about BASIC research–discovering and elucidating previously-unknown natural laws, phenomena, and effects, on which applications and inventions can be based.

        And FDA is an oversight agency, not a granting agency or a basic-research agency. Doing primary research is not its mission.

      4. 3) If this was true, one would think the FDA would do a lot of primary research yet pharma companies pay trillions to do the research themselves. Why?

        Congress does not authorize or fund FDA to do so. They’re not a research arm of the Health sub-Dept., which has plenty of such research arms.

      5. The FDA doesn’t do research. The NIH and other research sponsors do do a lot of pharma research. They do tons more research on alternative uses for generic medications that you don’t see as much from industry but that has had major impacts on healthcare.

        You can be against public funding of research but don’t act like it’s a utopian world where that wouldn’t have significant negative consequences. It would but libertarianism doesn’t rely on the outcomes being better.

        Personally I’d prefer to not spend money on research but I do think it’s one of the more useful places for government spending so its lower on my priority to cut than other areas.

  15. I vaguely remember seeing something on tv once about the government putting shrimp on a treadmill for some study, and I’ve been pretty skeptical of most of their “research” ever since. And after being presented with all the evidence here… it’s outrageous. Excellent article with great links.

    1. The “shrimp-on-treadmills” project, which right-wingers are STILL pointing to as an example of why Federal funding agencies should be cut, is in fact a very valid, potentially valuable project. The chemistry and physiology of exertion and stress is a very important basic-science issue all by itself, and especially so in marine organisms, because marine organisms grown in the lab don’t have to exert themselves, they have food in their water and no predators to dodge, while in the wild they have to chase food and avoid becoming food, so everything we learn from experiments on lab-grown marine organisms could be wrong when we try to use it to model marine life in the wild. An apparatus such as the shrimp-treadmill, which enables us to make marine organisms exert themselves in a controlled, measurable way, is an essential tool for understanding this important question.

  16. NIH budget would be far better spent and have more legitimate value if they spread their institutes (cancer institute, aging institute, genome research institute, heart/lung/blood institute) out across the country rather than centralizing them in Bethesda. One of the biggest problems this country has is creating the next generation of research skills. Kids need to SEE what basic scientific research actually looks like and that that leads to jobs everywhere before they will be motivated to study difficult subjects (like STEM) instead of fluff. Spreading those institutes out would allow states themselves to create clinical infrastructure around them – and pharma companies to distribute the same (which at least makes it more expensive for them to then have their lobbyists and crony system so close to DC) and allow schools to have field trips.

    And likewise with the university grants. They probably are mostly silly and purely bureaucratic. But if those universities are required to open up their labs to school field trips for those grants, then there is a value (at minimum, the researcher is gonna have to explain to kids why it is important to know why lesbians are fat and gays aren’t which should make for increased popcorn sales). If they don’t, eliminate the grants.

  17. Wow. Got nearly 7 paragraphs in before the Standard Trump Still Sucks Disclaimer had to be inserted. That must be a record.

    1. Well, he is the president now, you know?

  18. In the case of the budget…long as I can remember, federal programs NEVER end. Ever.

    His budget is looking to end some.

    That is progress in the move to shrink the government.

  19. We all know Trump just did this so that Middle Eastern scientists hanging out at US universities for a few years wouldn’t get US money. Government waste should only go to the pockets of American citizens.

  20. This is the single most shallow, histrionic post I’ve read on reason since the website was created (and yeah, I’ve been checking in at least weekly the whole time). It isn’t really differentiable from a post on a creationist or anti-vaccine website given the gibbering ‘look at the silly scientist’ tone and the reposting of poorly digested secondary sources. All of the actual project summaries are publicly available, but instead you link to polemic BS by people who clearly aren’t even interested in knowing what they are talking about? I could explain at least half of the examples given in terms of their broader impact, but then so could you if you did your job as a journalist and talked to the researchers in question, like the actual journalist in the Atlantic article you deride. Did you know that studies of siberian hamster reproduction are the major model system by which we came to understand how our body clocks work for instance? No? Of course not, that would require a reasonable and deliberate assessment of a discipline by reading the actual literature or talking to actual scientists. One might also make perfectly legitimate, rational, libertarian, claims about the problems about how research decisions are made at NIH (and they are largely the opposite of what is asserted here). I would say more, but the character limit is against it.

  21. Please cite the source of Quali studies because i couldn’t find in any of the databases. Maybe this is what you were referring. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21131709. Excerpt below.

    “Quail studies were the first to show that this enzyme is regulated both relatively slowly via genomic actions of steroids and more quickly via phosphorylation. With this base of knowledge and the recent cloning of the entire genome of the closely related chicken, quail will be valuable for future studies connecting gene expression to sexual and social behaviors”

    This has a serious implication at a much grander scale. Consider the application of it in our food source or local natural food chain order.

    When we understand the mechanism to accurately predict or to cause reproductive behaviors of certain species, then is it possible to apply such techniques in animals such as cows or pigs, to increase production thus reducing cost and export more to foreign countries? Perhaps, a similar application can be made to those important for textile or leather industry, like sheep and water lizard for a less expensive domestic manufacturing thus reducing import. Taking one step further, since we’d know how to control such behavior, we might be able to stop the proliferation of highly invasive Snakehead that is destroying the ecosystem and recreational fishing industry and more in some parts of the US. This could maybe save a small town’s revenue source, the visitors.

  22. I’m not convinced that all the insects and animals are REALLY getting all that good gov’t cocaine. I think there’s a lot of academics out there high on cocaine – and on the NIH dime.

  23. Hit pieces like this really piss me off. You can make almost any research sounds stupid if you leave out the context and only mention the weird parts. Some nerd is studying moldy jelly (penicillin) or fruit flies (one of our major sources of knowledge about genetics) or something to do with sex (which is actually important and influential in most people’s lives, as well as a major vector for infection). Just because you don’t see why it’s important doesn’t mean it isn’t. The funded proposals are in something like the top 20% of requests for funding, so they’re clearly not whimsical flights of fancy to waste money!

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