Photo credit: Wastebook 2014 from Sen. Tom Coburn’s website
Yesterday, U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., released his annual “Wastebook,” a compilation of 100 government-funded projects the senator deemed wasteful. Five grants funded by the National Institutes of Health and 10 grants funded by the National Science Foundation made the list.1 We looked at more detailed descriptions of these projects using the NIH RePORTER and grants.gov. We also read several of the publications resulting from these grants. While Wastebook’s explanations are persuasive, a deeper look into the grant descriptions reveals a different story.
We chose two grants to highlight how Cochran misrepresents projects’ goals. While we will not analyze each of the 15 grants in this manner, suffice it to say that these two are not isolated occurrences. Wastebook gives a decent description of research results from a fMRI study mapping the regions of the brain that respond to children and pets (#12). Coburn suggests this study is wasteful because “science” already has demonstrated these effects. What the senator misses is that the mapping of specific higher-order functions to precise regions of the brain is crucial to understanding the pathogenesis of a variety of diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease – a disease in which afflicted patients often have difficulty identifying loved ones.
Similarly, Coburn’s criticisms of an NIH grant to study the effects of text message interventions for problem drinkers (#94) are unfounded. Text messaging is not an “internet-based intervention.” The study authors point out that unlike internet-based strategies, text messages can “support individuals proactively and be tailored to an individual’s current state.”2 In addition, study participants who seek other treatments must be excluded from the study, as this treatment would become an uncontrolled variable. Excessive drinking is extraordinarily expensive, costing the U.S. $224 billion and accounting for 10 percent of deaths in working-age adults.3 Strategies like text messaging represent a potentially cheap, innovative method for reducing problem drinking, but we cannot know if they work without studying them in a controlled manner first.
One of the best things about research is that the ideas and results are usually reviewed multiple times by experts—through peer review of the grant application and subsequent publications. In other words, most, if not all, of these grants have been scrutinized several times by other scientists, who deemed them worthy of funding and publication. Rather than relying on a senator’s catchy headlines and provocative prose about science spending, we should be relying on experts to determine whether a scientific idea has merit.
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1The NIH grants listed in Coburn’s Wastebook are #2, 12, 64, 72 and 94, and the NSF grants are #4, 7, 8, 18, 19, 35, 59, 70, 86 and 89. 2NIH RePORTER, project number 5R34AA021502-02. 3Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.