More CongressCritter Meddling in the NIH Grant Process

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.

13 responses so far

  • They list three R03's and two R21's in their final year of funding by year-code!

    AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!! You expect us to believe that these sick-fuck depraved right-wing scumbags know or care about the NIH funding machanisms and year-codes?? Srsly? C'mon, holmes.
    They told their sick-fuck depraved right-wing fuck-up staffers to go find some red meat to throw to the morally degenerate base and provide cover for dog-whistle bashing on coastal-elite faggot-loving jew scientists.

  • BugDoc says:

    yes, these studies do touch on issues related to AIDS and cancer. But it may not be too wacky for the CongressCritters (representing the US taxpayer and all) to ask how studies of HIV in Thai sex workers or drug abuse in Brazilian Rave culture will benefit the US public. I don't agree than any grant that has "HIV" or "AIDS" or "cancer" in the title should automatically be considered relevant or mission critical if the main hypothesis or question of the grant is highly unlikely to benefit the people who fund the research.
    I love right wing conspiracy theories as much as the next bleeding heart liberal, but not sure this one qualifies....

  • Beaker says:

    I'm on the fence. On the one hand, you can find a nice example of the red meat CPP claims on the Fixed News site here. Plenty of shocking images of brown and gay people, designed to elicit rage from armchair dittoheads. All of the studies cited appear to involve sociological questions, which make for easy targets.
    On the other hand, BugDoc makes the valid point. Taxpayers have a right to ask how their money is being spent, and our congresscritters are supposed to help us ask those questions. On first pass, I'm not thrilled to hear that the NCI spent $73,000 to test (according to CRISP) " a novel, team-oriented exercise program (dragon boating)" to "help us learn more about how physical, mental, social and spiritual factors impact the quality of life of cancer survivors." The conclusions are (according to a preliminary presentation of the results): "Participation in a physical activity program, regardless of the type of program, increased overall cancer-related QoL in cancer survivors. This impact was most notable for QoL related to the physical and functional domains. These preliminary findings indicate that participating in a short-term physical activity program can lead to significant improvements in cancer-related QoL." (QoL is a score from a survey given to the dragon boaters and to controls, who got their exercise from group walking).
    Any psychological oncologists out there? Was this a question worth asking? As a person who does not work in this field, I can't judge it very critically, but it seems obvious that exercise would be good for cancer survivors, whether they get it via dragon boating or walking. Any members from the "Special Emphasis Panel" study section that gave this R03 a high priority care to support their decision? Does anybody at NCI wish to provide programatic justification? Does this fill a gap in our understanding of psychological oncology?

  • whimple says:

    More CongressCritter Meddling in the NIH Grant Process
    DM, you know I love you, but your title shows you don't have a clue. Congress is the customer and they OWN the process. If you go and piss congress members off and get all attitude on them when they ask for some accountability, congress might just decide there's more in it for them from, say, propping up more investment banks, or sending more troops to Afghanistan, or building bridges in Alaska. This is an opportunity for the DragonBoaters(tm) to trot out their study participants and have them explain how the results of this funded study improved their lives and how this was money well-spent by the American taxpayer.

  • becca says:

    So I remember hearing that some of the efforts to defund ACORN were running afoul of a specific rule that says you can't make a law targeting a particular organization. Methinks we need a version of rule for scientific funding.

  • a specific rule that says you can't make a law targeting a particular organization

    It's not a "rule" that is being referred to; it's a provision of the United States Constitution: Article I, Section 9; Clause 3 is "No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed".
    However, there are very good arguments that this provision does not apply to Congress's power of the purse.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Orac @#4, Issa was just the latest iteration, Toomey came before him and then there was the Golden Fleece dude before Toomey.
    whimple @#5- I am not arguing against Congress choosing to set general policy for the NIH, to earmark broad scale initiatives (like HIV/AIDS) or even to practice legitimate oversight. Targeting specific grants in a way that is inconsistent with any general principles and highly consistent with a certain political agenda that has nothing to do with science (and indeed is anti-science quite frequently) is not appropriate. IMNSHO.
    Bugdoc- what conspiracy? I didn't say anything about a conspiracy. A political agenda is not a conspiracy.

  • whimple says:

    I don't see that Congress targeting specific grants as a waste of time and resources is any different philosophically from targeting specific military projects such as the V22 Osprey as expensive boondoggles worthy of defunding. The onus is on the NIH and NIH-funded researchers to justify their expenditures to Congress when Congress requests this justification, no matter how irrelevant or evil you might think the motivation of Congress may be.

  • The onus is on the NIH and NIH-funded researchers to justify their expenditures to Congress when Congress requests this justification, no matter how irrelevant or evil you might think the motivation of Congress may be.

    Obviously, Congress has the power to demand pretty much whatever the fuck it wants in this regard, and can use its power of subpoena to compel testimony. However, I fail to see the relevance of this to pointing out publicly that members of Congress pushing for this kind of thing in a particular instance are sick-fuck depraved right-wing fuck-ups seeking red meat to throw to their morally degenerate base and provide cover for dog-whistle bashing on coastal-elite faggot-loving jew scientists

  • anon says:

    There are something that you will never, ever convince Cong. Issa are worthwhile. This is man who voted against paid parental leave for federal employees because it might be abused by employees who adopted a child or became foster parents to a new child just for the extra leave. His brain doesn't work like everyone else's.

  • His brain doesn't work like everyone else's.

    It works exactly like all the rest of the sick-fuck morally degenerate shitbags that comprise the republican party.

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