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?
The full letter is linked here as a pdf. Let me quote the complaint:
While we understand that NIH recently enhanced its peer review criteria...the peer review system in place at the time...required that reviewers find that the project "address[ed] an important problem" At first glance, some of the grants we identified do no seem to meet this standard.
They then list four examples (which I'll return to below) and follow with:
We do not doubt that there may be some degree of scientific benefit to be gained from these studies. However, given the number of urgent public health issues facing the NIH, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and pandemic disease [DM-emphasis added], 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.
The 'Critters then insist on a detailed explanation of the merit and review of 12 specific funded grant projects (including the three which bothered Rep Issa, btw). The abstracts of the grants are attached as appendix material so you can play along at home.
Six of these projects are directed at HIV/AIDS. I kid you not. In some areas of the world HIV/AIDS is a pandemic disease, lab partners! What do they want, funding for theoretical, feared pandemics like SARS and swine flu? HIV is totally and completely relevant to the mission of the NIH and we know this because of the Congressional mandate about HIV/AIDS funding! A seventh study (1G13LM009601-01A1) has, right in the abstract, the observation that "The study also examines how health campaigns contributed to the elimination and reduction of epidemic diseases". I am not making this up, I swear.
Two studies have to do with cancer- one on exercise helping with survivorship / quality of life and one to do with soy-bread as a complimentary therapy. I can tell right from this that there is some potential for health-relevant positive outcome (even if it is debunking soy-bread)...and that these CongressCritters don't have the expertise to judge the merit. But still, these guys listed cancer as one of their approved health concerns...so what gives?
Three projects are on substance use and four of the HIV/AIDS ones focus on substance abuse issues in the context of HIV/AIDS as well. Perhaps not a pandemic but a serious public health issue, as my Readers are aware. This is why we have both NIDA and NIAAA, my friends-are you planning to defund whole Institutes next? Because that would make more sense than picking on a handful of projects under the guise of more deserving "urgent public health issues"...
In short, these clowns have no genuine concern with health relevance or the NIH mission of various ICs or quality science that I can detect. Because they select grants that hit on the very "relevance" topics that they cite, ones that fit obviously and clearly within general NIH IC mandates and also with specific add-ons from Congress (when it comes to HIV/AIDS). The only issues that seem to coherently link the selected projects are deduced from the observation that these Congressmen apparently don't like studies on HIV, drugs of abuse and especially non-white and/or foreign populations. This sounds like a social conservative political, rather than a scientific or even a good stewardship-of-public-funds, agenda to me.
Finally there is a structural angle to the posturing which makes me wonder if they are even remotely serious about this. They list three R03's and two R21's in their final year of funding by year-code! What possible impact is there of demanding that the NIH Director tell them how these grants got approved?? There is no time to halt the projects. And they know this...don't they? Are CongressCritters really so dense as to specifically go after the final year of a non-renewable (and dinky) award? Or are they doing it with cynicism knowing they can't possibly make real steps to defund the project?
Ok, Ok, so this is only an effort to question the NIH about their practices. Not one of those Toomey/Issa style efforts to actually amend the budget or anything. But still, this is ridiculous. At best it is cynical science-bashing to play to the social-conservative base. At worst, they really do mean to put Congressional fingers right into the grant evaluation process and decide funding based on politics, rather than science.
I don't like either of these things.