Archive for the 'Call yer CongressCritter' category

NSF negotiates with terrorists

Mar 18 2016 Published by under Call yer CongressCritter, NSF

This is funny
Right wing anti-science nuts in Congress are not going to stop attacking research grants just because the Abstracts are expressed in less technical language. Their political agenda is at work and poor understanding of the project  has nothing whatever to do with their motivations. 

22 responses so far

Congress is dissatisfied with NIH's spending priorities!

This passage appeared in a highly prestigious journal of science.

"Important elements in both Senate and the House are showing increasing dissatisfaction over Congress's decade-long honeymoon with medical research....critics are dissatisfied...with the NIH's procedures for supervising the use of money by its research grantees....NIH officials..argued, rather, that the most productive method in financing research is to pick good people with good projects and let them carry out their work without encumbering them...its growth has been phenomenal....[NIH director}: nor do we believe that most scientific groups in the country have an asking and a selling price for their product which is research activity...we get a realistic appraisal of what they need to do the job..the supervisory function properly belongs to the universities and other institutions where the research takes place....closing remarks of the report are:...Congress has been overzealous in appropriating money for health research".

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3 responses so far

Bash Science with Gay AND Fat-shaming? It's like a rightwing three-fer

We recently discussed how the Origami Condom project supported under the Small Business Innovation Research Congressional mandate had quite obvious public health implications in a prior post. This was in response to the gleeful Republican bashing of NIH funding priorities in the wake of NIH Director Francis Collins' rather poorly considered claims* that Ebola research has been held back by the flatlining of the NIH budget over the past ten years.

Today we take on another one of these claims that the NIH has not been using its appropriations wisely. Fox news provides a handy example of the claim:

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has spent more than $39 million on obese lesbians

As the wags are posting on various social media outlets, more Americans have been dumped by [insert popular entertainment personality] than have been killed by Ebola.

In striking contrast, obesity is a big killer of Americans. According to one review of the evidence:

Using data on all eligible subjects from all six studies, Allison et al. estimated that 280,184 obesity-attributable deaths occurred in the U.S. annually. When risk ratios calculated for nonsmokers and never-smokers were applied to the entire population (assuming these ratios to produce the best estimate for all subjects, regardless of smoking status, i.e., that obesity would exert the same deleterious effects across all smoking categories), the mean estimate for deaths due to obesity was 324,940.

Additional analyses were performed controlling for prevalent chronic disease at baseline using data from the CPS1 and NHS. After controlling for preexisting disease, the mean annual number of obesity-attributable deaths was estimated to be 374,239 (330,324 based on CPS1 data and 418,154 based on NHS data).

Over 350,000 Americans die annually of obesity. For the Republican Congresspersons in the audience, "annually" means every year. Last year, this year, next year. Over 350,000.

No biggie, right?
Whoops, maybe it is worse than we thought?

Researchers found that obesity accounted for nearly 20 percent of deaths among white and black Americans between the ages of 40 and 85. Previously, many scientists estimated that about 5 percent of deaths could be attributed to obesity.

And is coming close to beating smoking as the top preventable killer of American citizens?
Flegel et al 2004 and Flegel et al 2013 provide some handy context to estimating mortality causes for the nerdier types. From the 2013 meta-analysis:

[overweight (BMI of 25-<30), obesity (BMI of ≥30), grade 1 obesity (BMI of 30-<35), and grades 2 and 3 obesity (BMI of ≥35) ] .. CONCLUSIONS AND RELEVANCE: Relative to normal weight, both obesity (all grades) and grades 2 and 3 obesity were associated with significantly higher all-cause mortality. Grade 1 obesity overall was not associated with higher mortality, and overweight was associated with significantly lower all-cause mortality.

So. Just this easily we can confirm that obesity is a major public health concern from mortality alone. This doesn't even get into non-mortal effect of obesity on personal well-being. Major public health concerns are the very province of NIH-funded academic research.

So once again, the applicability of grants that are targeted at reducing obesity (even if it is just understanding the causes of obesity) to the goals of the NIH, as mandated by Congress, is not in question. At all. This is not a frivolous expenditure.

That leaves us with the specific projects in question. I trotted over to RePORTER and pulled up 6 current awards- two are K-mechanism mentored training awards so we'll focus on the R-mechanism research projects.


nearly three-quarters of adult lesbians overweight or obese, compared to half of heterosexual women. In stark contrast, among men, heterosexual males have nearly double the risk of obesity compared to gay males. Despite clear evidence from descriptive epidemiologic research that sexual orientation and gender markedly pattern obesity disparities, there is almost no prospective, analytic epidemiologic research into the causes of these disparities. It will be impossible to develop evidence-based preventive interventions unless we first answer basic questions about causal pathways, as we plan to do.

I bolded a key part, from my perspective. You waste a ton of money, often public money, if you go off with solutions to problems without having a clear understanding of the things causing or following from this problem. Epidemiological and sociological research guides not just public policy but also additional studies of physiology, genetic liabilities, etc. So this specific project would seem to be of considerable use.


lesbian and bisexual (LB) women may be at elevated risk for developing T2D because they are more likely than heterosexual women to experience obesity and other risk factors linked with T2D such as cigarette smoking, violence victimization, and depressive distress. Nonetheless, knowledge of T2D and how it may disproportionately affect LB women is severely limited. Studies using longitudinal designs that have comprehensively examined how lifestyle, diet, and psychosocial risk factors for T2D may differ between LB and heterosexual women across the life course are virtually nonexistent.

This project emphasizes non-mortal morbidity, i.e., Type 2 Diabetes (T2D). And again, the abstract describes how we know almost nothing about the reasons for the obesity disparity between lesbian and heterosexual women. If we are going to disentangle potential social, behavioral, cultural, physiological and genetic contributors to the disparity, we need information. And very likely, through this research we will come to know more about how these variables affect obesity risk for all Americans, across all subpopulations. This will help us design better interventions to reduce the obesity burden. Clearly this is another grant that is clearly non-frivolous and fits into the public health mandate of the NIH.


Previous research indicates that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) adults experience more adverse health outcomes than their peers. Findings from the few studies examining weight disparities among adults suggest that lesbian women are more likely to be overweight or obese compared to their heterosexual peers, though less is known about gay men and bisexuals. Given the scant research to date in this area, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recently issued a call for additional research on LGBT health. Furthermore, IOM highlighted the need to utilize a life-course framework when examining health disparities by sexual identity, acknowledging the unique influence of various life stages on health

What's this now? Even the US Institute of Medicine has reported on how important it is to combat obesity in US citizens? I mean dang, guys, it's the IOM.

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) is an independent, nonprofit organization that works outside of government to provide unbiased and authoritative advice to decision makers and the public.

Established in 1970, the IOM is the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, which was chartered under President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Nearly 150 years later, the National Academy of Sciences has expanded into what is collectively known as the National Academies, which comprises the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the National Research Council, and the IOM.

And they do investigations, review evidence, compare the facts...

anyway, this R21 is going to focus on young adults and do studies under the following Aims:

(1) Quantify disparities in obesity, dietary intake, physical activity, unhealthy weight control behavior, body satisfaction and other weight-related health outcomes among LGB and heterosexual students; (2) Identify major weight-related health behavioral patterns, or profiles, and the extent to which these behavioral profiles differ by sexual identity and gender; and (3) Characterize these behavioral profiles by demographic factors and health outcomes (e.g., age, socioeconomic status, health care coverage, obesity, and health status). We hypothesize that LGB students engage in more adverse behaviors than their heterosexual peers and exhibit differential behavioral patterning.

Yep, more psycho-social research but I continue to assert that without this evidence, we run the risk of wasting more money pursuing directions that could have been falsified by the epidemiological and social science studies of this type.

The final research project is an R15/AREA grant:

Ok, going by the Abstract this one is indeed focused on Alcohol abuse and intimate partner violence and I don't see why it is being triggered by the obesity keyword on the search. But still, I think we can see that this one ALSO would draw right wing fire. Even though, once again, alcoholism and intimate partner violence are huge health issues in the US.

As with the Origami Condom NIH Grant, we can find with relatively little thinking that the "National Institutes of Health (NIH) has spent more than $39 million on obese lesbians" comment is wrongly placed in an article addressing "wasteful" spending on the part of the NIH. These projects address the causes of obesity, which is basically a top predator of Americans at the moment. Obesity causes excess mortality and morbidity, which is of course associated with financial costs. Costs to the individual and costs to us all as a society that shares some degree of social support for the health care of our fellow citizens. It is in our direct and obvious interests to conduct research that will help us reduce this burden of obesity. As far as studying subpopulations who appear to be at increased risk for obesity goes, there is no reason not to want to help African-Americans, Southern Americans, Flyoverlandia Americans or...Lesbian-Americans. Right? And while it may take a little bit of a leap of faith for those who haven't thought hard about it, understanding the causes of a major health condition in those other people over there helps to understand the causes in people who are just like ourselves. By subtraction if by no other means.

For my regular Readers I'll close with a plea. Use analysis like this one to beat back this stupid meme that is going around about "frivolous" NIH expenditures. This is not just about this current Ebola fervor. This is about the normal operations of the NIH as it has progressed over decades. There are always those wanting to score cheap political points by bashing science as trivial or obviously ridiculous. Nine times out of ten, these charges are easily rebutted. So take the time to do so, even if it just posting some text pulled from the grant abstract and a link to a morbidity report on whichever health concern happens to be under discussion.

*"poorly considered" meaning he didn't apparently anticipate handing such a bunch of base-bait to the Republicans.

26 responses so far

The Origami Condom and NIH Ebola funding

One of the NIH funded research projects that has been bandied about with much glee from the right wing, in the wake of Francis Collins' unfortunate assertion about Ebola research and the flatlined NIH budget, is the "Origami Condom". It shows why NIH Director Collins should have known better. The Origami Condom sounds trivial and ridiculous, right? "Origami". hahah. Oooh, "condom". Wait, what are we, 12 year olds?

Rand Paul provides a convenient example.
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18 responses so far

Rep Harris wants to help the "Young, Brilliant and Unfunded". Allegedly.

Oct 03 2014 Published by under Call yer CongressCritter, Fixing the NIH, NIH

In an Op-Ed in the NYT, Representative Andy Harris (R, Maryland) lays out three main issues that he would like to address regarding the functions of the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Harris [Wikipedia] was a Physician Scientist prior to running for Congress and was the PI of NIH Grant R01 GM036044-04. This grant ran from 1986-2007 and was competitively renewed three times. This, in my mind, gives us much more reason, than is usual for a Congress Critter, to hear the man out.

The Op-Ed proposes to alter the infamous age-of-first-R01 award. Even the NIH [see post at RockTalking] itself agrees that the age of 42 might be too old. Consequently, when Harris recommends:

Congress should also mandate that the median age of first research awards to new investigators be under 40 within five years, and under 38 within 10 years. Failure to meet these benchmarks would result in penalties for the N.I.H., including possible funding cuts.

I am in full agreement. I might even want more aggressive benchmarks. Telling NIH that they must address this is fine because pretty much all stakeholders have been agreeing this is ridiculous. There is very little that I have heard in the way of any serious argument that this increasing age of first-R01 award is a good thing. Now....what I really want to see is the inter-quartile range. What we see is the median and it simply doesn't square with my seat of the pants estimate. It looks really old to me, meaning I know a lot of people that got their start in their early to mid thirties (yes, within the last 15 years, thanks) and very few that got their first R01 at 43 or older. It may be the case that the distribution is nearly Gaussian....or it could be really skewed. It would not surprise me in the least if the 25th percentile is age 36 and the 75th percentile is age 45, for example. I want to see the entire distribution, ideally, but the inter-quartile range would be a good substitute.

The next item is standard right winger, Republican fare when it comes to federally funded science and I oppose it. Strongly. Rep Harris' version:

To make sure it meets those goals, we should insist on the development of an N.I.H.-wide strategic plan — not just for targeting younger researchers, but for prioritizing different avenues of research overall. Today we see too many grants going to things like creating a video game for moms to teach them how to get their kids to eat more vegetables, or studying the creation of a social security system in southern Mexico. Such projects may have value to some, but is creating a video game really more important than researching a cure for Alzheimer’s?

It is easy for anyone to point to some "ridiculous" grant award or study topic that revs up their base. Whether you are opposed to research into topics that are "solved" in the Republican mind with prohibition and moral tut-tutting (HIV/AIDS, drug abuse), in the Democratic mind with hippie veganism and anticorporatism (diabetes, heart diseasee) or in the waccaloon mind by denial (ban all animal research, for example) isn't really important. I can show you how stupidly irrelevant some basic research is, Sarah Palin can dismiss drosophila models or PP and St. McKnight can insist that only "vertically ascending science" is relevant to real advance. We're all wrong. The tremendous strength and success of the NIH-funded research enterprise relies intimately on the relative absence of top-down control. Investigator initiated science is the best way, of a myriad of options. Period. When we try to be "efficient" by picking winners in advance, we hinder scientific advance. It is really surprising Dr. Harris doesn't realize this, even if Representative Harris feels compelled to advance the standard right wing attack against science that discomforts their constituencies of Big Business and Social Conservative Theocrats.

The final agenda item of Rep Harris is, I believe, the true agenda. The bone thrown to young investigators is only a sweetener, I would bet. He wants to end the "tap".

For one thing, we need to eliminate a budget gimmick, known as the “tap,” that allows the Department of Health and Human Services to shift money out of the N.I.H. budget into other department efforts. The N.I.H. lost $700 million to the “tap” in 2013 alone. Instead, the money should be placed under the control of the N.I.H. director, with an explicit instruction that it go to young investigators as a supplement to money already being spent. If we don’t force the N.I.H. to spend it on young investigators, history has shown that the agency won’t.

And what is this, you ask? Datahound to the rescue:

DJMH: The HHS Secretary has the authority to transfer funds for Program Evaluation. This has been down routinely for more than a decade to fund AHRQ and other agencies and to support program evaluation at NIH.


The NIH and other Public Health Service agencies within HHS are subject to
a budget “tap” called the PHS Program Evaluation Transfer, authorized by section
241 of the PHS Act (42 U.S.C. § 238j). It is used to fund not only program
evaluation activities, but also functions that are seen as having benefits across the
Public Health Service, such as the National Center for Health Statistics in CDC and
the entire budget of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. These and
other uses of the evaluation tap by the appropriators have the effect of redistributing
appropriated funds among PHS agencies. The FY2005 and FY2006 L-HHS-ED
appropriations set the tap at 2.4%, as does the FY2007 Senate bill. The House bill
returns the maximum tap to 1.0%, the level specified in the PHS Act. Since NIH has
the largest budget among the PHS agencies, it becomes the largest “donor” of
program evaluation funds and is a relatively minor recipient. think to yourself, why would a Republican Congressman be so het up over this? Well, if you do some judicious googling about AHRQ you find things like this.

The U.S. House Committee on Appropriations released their draft 2013 Labor, Health and Human Services funding bill. In their summary, the number one stated intent is the following:
“Defunding ObamaCare – The legislation contains several provisions to stop the implementation of ObamaCare...

One extreme cut that was thrown in the draft was not just defunding, but total termination of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, a tiny agency under the Department of Health and Human Services. AHRQ has a budget of $405 million.

That looks to be more than half of the "tap" that Rep Harris wants to close. And this brings us to wonder if Dr. / Rep Harris has any opinions on the ACA?

Looks as though he is not a fan. Nope, not a fan. At all.

So, Dear Reader, I confess I come away from Rep Harris' Op-Ed with a feeling that the true agenda here is a very familiar right-wing Republican one that goes after part of the Affordable Care Act and attempts to gain additional direct say over what grants the NIH funds. The part about supporting younger scientists is merely a convenient ploy to sweeten the deal and attract the unwary. I don't believe it is the true purpose here.

27 responses so far

Further News on the Volunteer Postdoc Advertisement

Oct 25 2013 Published by under Academics, Call yer CongressCritter, Careerism

I had previously noted a situation in which an ad for a volunteer (i.e., unpaid) postdoc position requiring 2-3 years of prior experience was posted in the San Diego area.

A bit by David Wagner (@david_r_wagner) on the KPBS site specifies:

Well, it wasn't a joke. But it wasn't exactly straight-forward, either.

The job listing was vague from the get-go. Who exactly was hiring? The only details given were "lab in La Jolla."

Well, there are lots of labs in La Jolla. So I had to do some digging to find out which one posted this, and I found out that the listing was posted by a researcher named Laura Crotty Alexander. She's a physician at the VA San Diego Healthcare System who doubles as a UCSD faculty member. I couldn't reach her for comment.

If Alexander's listing looked like a terrible opportunity, that's by design, according to VA chief of staff Robert Smith.

"Frankly, what she was trying to do was make it look unappealing," Smith said. "Because she was trying to create an advertisement that nobody would apply to."

You see, the VA lab already had someone in mind for the position: a postdoc from Egypt who actually volunteered to work for free.

The reporter further specified:

which in my view is a far from uncommon situation. I've received inquiries about working in my lab under similar circumstances.

This is wrong.

You know how I feel about unpaid internships.
Unpaid internships are a systemic labor exploitation scam- yes, in science labs too.

That was written in the context of undergraduate "interns". Imagine the magnitude of my distaste for exploiting a PhD with 2-3 years of postdoctoral experience. It is wrong.

1) It is wrong because it is labor exploitation. We dealt with that over 100 years ago in the US. Yes, exploitation always continues and is resisted in fits and starts by unions, regulation and competitive pressures. But the arguments remain the same, the benefits of exploiting labor are tempting and the excuses are no better in the scientific context. I don't care that the candidate "volunteers". I don't care that the candidate is getting authorship or keeping her hand in the game of science or whatever excuse you want to advance. This is the case for all postdocs. Should we refuse to pay all of them? Heck no. Just like we stopped letting companies demand their employees worked in the mines for 14 hr shifts, 7 days a week with no breaks. Just like we discouraged and restricted company-store, company-town scams which ended up reducing real wages. Just like we established a minimum wage. Etc. Just like modern jurisprudence is rejecting free intern scams.

2) It is wrong because it is an unfair competitive advantage for those who choose to exploit junior scientists in this way. I am a PI who is competing for precious research grant funds with other PIs. This competition is based in large part on the work product that comes out of our respective laboratories. Data generated and papers published. If some other person gets labor for free and I have to pay for it, then I am disadvantaged. Under our general labor laws, this is an unfair tilt to the table. Everyone should have to play by the same rules.

Please, people. Call your Congress Critter. Draw their attention to this news report. Use your knowledge of their political positions to trip their triggers. Maybe it is the visa-dodging aspect. Maybe it is the "taking the job from American postdocs" aspect. Maybe they are sensitive to labor exploitation arguments. Whichever works, use it.

h/t: @neuromusic



64 responses so far

Tightly wound

A friend was recently observing that we academics seem pretty high strung right now. Cranked up to the breaking point, I'd say.

Of course we are. This sequester and continuing resolution thing has really put the bite on. The lab closings that seemed only in the realm of a Friend of a Friend or a likely possibility are now becoming reality. I'm seeing PIs leave. Close down. Jump ship. In all of this there are technicians and postdocs losing their jobs. Grad students who cannot find a funded lab to join after the rotations are finished up. Institutional decision making that seems even closer than usual to hand-flapping panic rather than a plan.

Baby, it's cold outside.

52 responses so far

The NIH budget never actually doubled

Feb 04 2013 Published by under Call yer CongressCritter, Careerism

I pointed out some time ago that inflation "UnDoubled" the NIH budget rapidly in the wake of sustained Bush-era (now Obama-era) flatline budgets for the NIH. Nothing like a graph to make a point so I'll repost it.

Figure 1. NIH Appropriations (Adjusted for Inflation in Biomedical Research) from 1965 through 2007, the President's Request for 2008, and Projected Historical Trends through 2010.
All values have been adjusted according to the Biomedical Research and Development Price Index on the basis of a standard set of relevant goods and services (with 1998 as the base year).* The trend line indicates average real annual growth between fiscal years 1971 and 1998 (3.34%), with projected growth (dashed line) at the same rate. The red square indicates the president's proposed NIH budget for fiscal year 2008, also adjusted for inflation in biomedical research.

Now, what I ran across today at Ethan Perlstein's post on Postdocalypse now (go read) was this graph which makes the same point in a slightly different way. I like it. He didn't link the source so I'm not certain of the inflation adjustment used...probably not the above BRDPI, I would think. But still...makes the point doesn't it? At best the NIH purchasing power went up by 50%. It was never actually "doubled".

UPDATE: Perlstein noted that he grabbed the figure from this article at dailykos by emptypockets which says this about the sourcing:

The Science column links to a study by Paula Stephan, an economist at Georgia State University (PDF of PowerPoint slides) that puts some numbers on exactly how the doubling affected young scientists.

20 responses so far

Help President Obama pressure Congress into supporting basic research

Jan 25 2012 Published by under Call yer CongressCritter

And help keep his attention on this possible throw-away from the State of the Union address.

I was heartened by several observations from the US President that seemed to suggest he understands that investment in basic research (no, not just targeted development) was the key to sustained economic growth into the future. But you need to help keep him on task. And get Congress on board.

I noted a few months ago that a petition has been launched to collect signatures favoring minor increases in funding for the NIH. There are 3,931 people as of this writing.

Are you one of them? Have you passed the link around your lab, department or Uni? How about to your academic socities? Have you posted it on your Facebook and Twitter feeds?

Please do.

One response so far

Petition your Congress Critter

I ran across a petition on the Twitts today that asks Congress to support scientific research in the current budget discussions. This one is focused on the NIH:
Congress: increase federal research funding for the National Institutes of Health

The text reads, in part:

Dear Members of Congress

I am writing to you today to implore you to support the House proposal to increase the 2012 National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget by 3.3% ($31.7 billion). Since the 1930’s, the NIH has been a fundamental supporter of basic biomedical research in the U.S. Funding from the NIH supports research in all 50 states. These awards are made to over 3,000 universities, medical schools, and research institutions, and they support more than 350,000 researchers. NIH funding to basic research has supported findings that were honored by 121 Nobel Prizes, including this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The nonprofit coalition United for Medical Research concluded that funding by the NIH in 2010 produced $68 billion in new economic activity, which is a greater than 100% return on our investment!

I urge you to add your name to the petition.
The bumpersticker is from Zazzle.

One response so far

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