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February 1, 2013

Investing in Bad Science

The dubious projects of government agencies

The federal government expends vast amounts of money on “research” of innumerable kinds. Many of these expenditures are unwise and unwarranted, falling into the category of pork or overlapping with work that would otherwise be performed by private-sector entities. Public funding for scientific research should largely be limited to basic scientific discoveries or proof-of-principle experiments — which would reasonably be defined as public goods — rather than efforts to extend science into marketable technologies or products.

From an economic perspective, one can justify government funding for public goods because they are far enough removed from “fencing” through intellectual property rights that no individual or company has sufficient economic incentive to pay for the research. If an entity cannot capture at least part of the financial gains from the research investment, the research, in effect, supplies information on which anyone can capitalize. No one ought to be able to monopolize basic scientific principles or natural phenomena, and our intellectual property regime does, in fact, attempt to prevent that. (The recent Supreme Court decision in Mayo v. Prometheus reiterates that point.)

However, there is a far less persuasive rationale for government funding of research that can be fenced sufficiently to provide a return on investment, and there are other critical determinants — in the sense of limitations — of what research should legitimately be federally funded. It should a) follow recognized experimental methodologies, b) be in the national interest, and c) focus on nontrivial questions or problems. As discussed below, these spare and seemingly obvious criteria are often controverted. And although such exceptions to sound principles represent a small percentage of overall federal research funding, in a time of belt-tightening at the nation’s premier research organizations the dollar amounts could make a real difference to legitimate, high-quality research. Moreover, the fact that certain organizations are systematic and serial offenders cries out for reform.

Golden fleece vs. golden goose

From 1975 to 1987, Democratic Senator William Proxmire presented monthly “Golden Fleece Awards” to identify what he viewed as wasteful government spending. Since then, many politicians and other critics of federal spending have blasted various government-funded research projects.

Some of these criticisms clearly have been wrong-headed. An example is this dismissal of a supposedly unworthy research project by former Alaska Governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin: “Sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.”

The problem is that Palin didn’t know what she didn’t know. A century of studies on the genetics of Drosophila melanogaster, the fruit fly, an organism that shares about half of its genes with humans, has yielded information critical to understanding the process of aging and how genes work.

In order to call attention to this sort of misapprehension, several congressmen from both sides of the aisle have gotten together with various research advocacy organizations to create the “Golden Goose Awards” to “highlight the often unexpected or serendipitous nature of basic scientific research by honoring federally funded researchers whose work may once have been viewed as unusual, odd or obscure, but has produced important discoveries benefitting society in significant ways.”

Jim Cooper, the congressman behind the idea, clarified the award’s intention: “We’ve all seen reports that ridicule odd-sounding research projects as examples of government waste. The Golden Goose Award does the opposite. It recognizes that a valuable federally funded research project may sound funny, but its purpose is no laughing matter.” Cooper and Alan Leshner, who heads the American Association for the Advancement of Science, penned a precious little op-ed in the Washington Post to describe the rationale for the award and to announce this year’s winners. Their view is, “We need to get serious about science. In fact, maybe it’s time for researchers to fight back, to return a comeback for every punch line.”

However, all research isn’t created equal, and some punch lines don’t deserve a comeback. Although the Cooper-Leshner initiative might help in some instances to educate the public and politicians about the nature of science, it should not obscure the fact that many research projects that sound funny are ill-conceived and represent waste or abuse of government funds.

The Golden Goose Award makes use of a formal fallacy, a pattern of reasoning that is illogical and wrong, called “asserting the consequent.” It takes the form of: “If A, then B. B, therefore, A.” An example would be: “If Warren Buffett owned the British Crown Jewels, he would be rich. Buffett is rich; therefore, he owns the Crown Jewels.” The rationale for the award seems to be, “Some criticism of federally-funded research projects has been uninformed and ill-advised. People continue to criticize federally funded projects; therefore, their views are uninformed and ill-advised.”

Leshner, of all people, should understand fallacious reasoning; he was a psychology professor for a decade. But maybe he spent too long at the National Science Foundation involved with the funding of the social and behavioral sciences, which, as discussed below, has become an exemplar for worthless research.

The National Science Foundation

It’s astonishing that some of Proxmire’s Golden Fleece Award projects passed any kind of peer-review for merit. The first two went to the nsf. The first was for an $84,000 grant that was intended to discover why people fall in love. The second, for $500,000 (part of which was from two other federal agencies), was to determine which stimuli cause rats, monkeys, and humans to bite and clench their jaws.

nsf is a major driver of American science: With an annual budget of over $7 billion, it funds about one-fifth of all federally-supported basic research conducted by U.S. colleges and universities and 60 percent of all nonbiomedical life science research. But nsf has made a habit of fleecing American taxpayers. In April 2011, Senator Tom Coburn, a physician, released a report, “nsf Under the Microscope,” that provides a useful analysis of the agency’s funding. Coburn’s report identified a number of projects that will make most Americans, scientists and nonscientists alike, shake their heads. They include studies of: how to ride a bike; when dogs became man’s best friend; whether political views are genetically predetermined; whether parents choose trendy baby names; the best time to buy a ticket to a sold out sporting event; and why the same teams always seem to dominate the ncaa basketball playoffs.

Coburn’s study noted that “only politicians appear to benefit from other nsf studies, such as research on what motivates individuals to make political donations, how politicians can benefit from Internet town halls . . . and how politicians use the Internet.” Two recent studies funded by nsf not mentioned by Coburn include “how power affects empathy” and “outlook on life and political ideology.”

My experience confirms the thrust of Coburn’s report. Some projects I encountered were overtly ridiculous.

My own experience confirms the thrust of Coburn’s report. Some of the projects I encountered were of the overtly ridiculous variety. I once suffered through a presentation about an nsf-funded study of the ethics of nanotechnology research. The investigator conducted interviews with nanotechnology researchers in their offices, and part of her “research methodology” involved recording what kind of screen savers were on their computers. The study concluded: “Narrative is an indispensable device for formulation of theory about scientists [sic] perspectives regarding the moral and social implications of nanotechnology,” and “alternative pedagogies are necessary to fully explore and develop a working ethical framework for analysis of nanotechnology.” Sounds as though it’s of nano-value to society, and clearly in Golden Fleece territory.

Some of the projects funded by nsf are less flagrant but real examples of waste or abuse. For example, the agency has funded a series of “citizens technology forums,” at which previously uninformed, ordinary Americans were brought together to solve a thorny question of technology policy.

According to the nsf’s abstract of the project, carried out by researchers at North Carolina State University under a grant, participants were to “receive information about that issue from a range of content-area experts, experts on social implications of science and technology, and representatives of special interest groups”; this was supposed to enable them to reach consensus “and ultimately generate recommendations.”

The project, first funded in 2002 to support two panels, and expanded thereafter, called for eight more panels (comprised of people “representative of the local population”). Their deliberations were to be overseen by a research team “composed of faculty in rhetoric of science, group decision-making, and political science,” who were charged to test both “an innovative measure of democratic deliberation” and “also political science theory, by investigating relationships between gender, ethnicity, lower socioeconomic status and increases in efficacy and trust in regulators.”

The first of these nsf-funded citizens’ groups tackled regulatory policy toward agricultural biotechnology and recommended that the government tighten regulations for cultivating genetically engineered crops, including a new requirement that the foods from these crops be labeled to identify them for consumers.

Both of these recommendations are unwarranted, inappropriate, and conflict with the views of experts — including those within and outside the government. (The labeling recommendation would also run afoul of the First Amendment constitutional guarantees of commercial free speech, which the citizen-policymakers failed to realize.)

In 2008, the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University and its collaborators at North Carolina State University held an nsf-funded citizens technology forum on the topic of nanotechnology and human enhancement. It followed the pattern of the one on biotechnology, with the organizers selecting “from a broad pool of applicants a diverse and roughly representative group of 74 citizens to participate at six geographically distinct sites across the country.”

Nonexperts are too often subject to their own prejudices and to the specific choice of background materials.

Participants were informed by “a 61-page background document — vetted by experts — to read prior to deliberating.” (The experts once again reflected the viewpoints of the organizers, no doubt.) They produced a hodgepodge of conclusions and recommendations, including “concern over the effectiveness of regulations” and “reduced certainty about the benefits of human enhancement technologies” but wanted “the government to guarantee access to them if they prove too expensive for the average American.” (Surprise! The participants didn’t understand the risks and benefits of the new technology but wanted the government to provide them with entitlements so they could avail themselves of the products of nanotechnology!)

The output of the citizens’ technology forums illustrates that such undertakings have limitations in both theory and practice; nonexperts are too often subject to their own prejudices and to the specific choice of background materials and the advocates to whom they are exposed. Both of these groups yielded just what one would expect: opinions that were based on a slanted and incomplete understanding of the subject.

Getting policy recommendations on obscure and complex technical questions from groups of citizen nonexperts is like going from your cardiologist’s office to a café, explaining to the waitress the therapeutic options for your chest pain, and asking her whether you should have the angioplasty or just take medication.

Not only is this project ill-conceived on its face but the agency’s left hand seems not to know what the right hand is doing. A study of public comprehension of science by the foundation several years ago found that fewer than one in four people know what a molecule is, and only about half understand that the earth circles the sun once a year. Even political leaders in policymaking positions are often profoundly ignorant. U.S. Congressman John Salazar related this disturbing anecdote: “You know when I was debating what became the 2008 Farm Bill, I had a member of the Ag[riculture] Committee actually ask me if chocolate milk really comes from brown cows. I asked if he was joking and he assured me he wasn’t.” In a September 2012 speech, Representative Paul Broun called Darwinian evolution “lies from the pit of hell” and argued that the Earth is 9,000 years old. Scientists have a somewhat different estimate: Based on evidence from meteorites and molecular decay rates, they believe the Earth is on the order of 4.5 billion years old. And Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee during a visit to Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Lab asked a nasa scientist whether the Mars Pathfinder probe had photographed the flag that astronaut Neil Armstrong had left behind in 1969. Armstrong had, of course, left the flag on the moon, not Mars. Nor is a manned mission to Mars planned.

Beyond whether they deserve the largess they receive, do such projects go beyond the non-science into the realm of nonsense?

As long ago as 1994, cosmologist Carl Sagan expressed concern about the trend toward an American society in which, “clutching our crystals and religiously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in steep decline, unable to distinguish between what’s true and what feels good, we slide, almost without noticing, into superstition and darkness.” And in “The March of Unreason,” British polymath Dick Taverne (a.k.a. Lord Taverne of Pimlico) posited that “in the practice of medicine, popular approaches to farming and food, policies to reduce hunger and disease and many other practical issues, there is an undercurrent of irrationality that threatens science-dependent progress and even [threatens] the civilized basis of our democracy.”

There’s a good reason that people generally are not science and technology savvy — a phenomenon that has been dubbed “rational ignorance,” which comes into play when the cost of sufficiently informing oneself about an issue to make an informed decision on it outweighs any potential benefit one could reasonably expect from that decision. Citizens occupied with the concerns of daily living — families, jobs, health — may not consider it to be cost-effective to study the potential risks and benefits of genetic engineering or nanotechnology.

Beyond whether or not such projects deserve the largess of the National Science Foundation is the deeper question of whether they go beyond nonscience into the realm of nonsense. 

Representative Cooper’s co-authorship of the Washington Post article is puzzling. A lawyer without any training in science or even relevant congressional committee assignments, somehow he feels qualified to pontificate on scientific issues. Ignorance in not just a problem for the general public. For example, Representative Hank Johnson, during a committee meeting, expressed concern about too many troops being sent to the island of Guam because, “My fear is that the whole island will become so overly populated that it will tip over and capsize.”  The point is that there is both obvious and subtle waste and abuse in federal funding agencies that give away huge amounts of taxpayer dollars for science and technology, and except for the rare bird like Coburn, congress has little appetite for addressing the problem.

As aaas President Alan Leshner wrote in a November 2011 Science editorial about these times of tightened federal budgets, “When resources are constrained, it is essential that they be used effectively and efficiently to avoid losing scientific momentum and to ensure that society will benefit maximally from s&t’s potential . . . The impact of impending cuts can be at least partially mitigated by some fundamental rethinking of the ways in which s&t are both funded and conducted.”

Leshner was right, and the “soft and sloppy” science projects at nsf, a large percentage of which are funded by its Social, Behavioral and Economics Directorate, would be an obvious place to begin that rethinking. Its programs need to be both trimmed and reorganized, and peer-review needs to be more effective. According to a former senior nsf official, “When the social sciences grants were part of the Biology Directorate they were embedded in a culture of scientific rigor and in competition with strong science [in other disciplines]. When they split off on their own the inmates took over the asylum and their world became quite insular.”

The nccam

When it comes to obvious waste and abuse of federal funds, nsf is, of course, not the only culprit. The breakdown of effective peer-review has given rise to problems at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (nccam) at the National Institutes of Health (nih). The center’s mission is “to define, through rigorous scientific investigation, the usefulness and safety of complementary and alternative medicine interventions and their roles in improving health and health care.” The problem is that many of its projects are trivial and almost all of the interventions tested have proven to be worthless. For example, a recent study funded by the center found that cranberry juice cocktail was no better than placebo at preventing recurring urinary tract infections. Other studies funded by the Center include, “Metabolic and Immunologic Effects of Meditation,” “Long-Term Chamomile Therapy of Generalized Anxiety Disorder,” and “Restorative Yoga for Therapy of the Metabolic Syndrome.” Sounds an awful lot like the tv ads for snake oil of all sorts.

Perhaps worst of all is the $60-plus million multicenter study, the Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy (tact), conducted under the aegis of nccam and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, to investigate the effects of disodium edta (a chemical that chelates, or binds, atoms so that they can be removed from a system) on coronary artery disease (cad). The likelihood that this study will yield positive results approaches zero. Perhaps because the trial was “requested” by two powerful members of Congress, nih pursued it in spite of the fact that chelation therapy had been discredited by four controlled trials performed during the 1990s. Even the nih concedes that “there is a lack of adequate prior research to verify edta chelation therapy’s safety and effectiveness for cad. The bulk of the evidence supporting the use of edta chelation therapy is in the form of case reports and case series.” nih officials should know the old saying among medical scientists that “the plural of anecdote is not data.”

The sort of “research” funded by nccam, to the tune of $130 million annually, is an affront to the nih and nih-funded investigators who are at the cutting edge of their disciplines and who are facing increasing difficulty getting federal funding even for studies that are highly ranked on the basis of scientific merit. In 2011, the percentage of research grant proposals that were funded by nih fell to eighteen percent, a record low. The squandering of research funds particularly shortchanges inexperienced scientists who do not have an extensive record of achievement. Bruce Alberts, the editor of the journal Science and the former president of the National Academy of Sciences, wrote in a November 2011 editorial, “There is an ominous sense of a major crisis brewing. Budget realities have begun to constrain scientific progress across the board, with an especially heavy impact on the careers of young scientists.”

National Institute of Food and Agriculture

Yet another federal research boondoggle is usda’s $4 million yearly program on risk-assessment for “genetically engineered organisms,” run by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Helped along the way by innumerable analyses by the National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences, academics and others, usda has had a quarter century to figure out that “genetically engineered organisms” do not represent a meaningful category amenable to risk analysis (or deserving discriminatory, regulatory oversight, which is another story).

Here are some of the conclusions of a landmark 1989 analysis by the U.S. National Research Council:

  • “The same physical and biological laws govern the response of organisms modified by modern molecular and cellular methods and those produced by classical methods.”
  • “Recombinant dna methodology makes it possible to introduce pieces of dna, consisting of either single or multiple genes, that can be defined in function and even in nucleotide sequence. With classical techniques of gene transfer, a variable number of genes can be transferred, the number depending on the mechanism of transfer; but predicting the precise number or the traits that have been transferred is difficult, and we cannot always predict the phenotypic expression that will result. With organisms modified by molecular methods, we are in a better, if not perfect, position to predict the phenotypic expression.”
  • “[N]o conceptual distinction exists between genetic modification of plants and microorganisms by classical methods or by molecular techniques that modify dna and transfer genes.”
  • “Crops modified by molecular and cellular methods should pose risks no different from those modified by classical genetic methods for similar traits. As the molecular methods are more specific, users of these methods will be more certain about the traits they introduce into the plants.”

One might think that even members of Congress and usda bureaucrats could comprehend the unmistakable message — first delivered a quarter-century ago and reiterated in innumerable forums since: There is no scientific rationale for a dedicated risk-assessment research set-aside for this pseudocategory. It’s like doing risk-assessment on all the objects that have doors.

Environmental Protection Agency

The master of waste, fraud, and abuse among the research-funding agencies, though, is the Environmental Protection Agency, the logo of which should be a Golden Fleece flanked by dollar signs. epa, with a research budget in excess of $800 million, has long been more concerned with public relations than public health. A scheme was exposed several years that would have diverted epa “research” funds to pay outside public relations consultants up to $5 million over five years to improve the website of the Office of Research and Development, conduct focus groups on how to polish the office’s image, and produce ghostwritten articles praising the agency “for publication in scholarly journals and magazines.”

This payola scheme is similar to the agency’s longstanding practice of buying influence by doling out hundreds of millions of dollars each year to certain favored nonprofit organizations — money that, according to the inspector general and Government Accountability Office, is dispersed with no public notice, competition, or accountability. The investigators documented systematic malfeasance by regulators, including: (1) making grants to grantees who were unable to fulfill the terms of the grants; (2) favoring an exclusive clique of grantees without opening the grants to competition; (3) funding “environmental” grants for activities that lack any apparent environmental benefit; and (4) failing to ensure that grantees performed the objectives identified in the grants.

I saw evidence of this while I was an official at the fda. For some reason I was favored with periodic reports of the research funded by the epa. The overwhelming majority of it was shoddy, irrelevant, and unpublishable.

The Next Big Thing that wasn’t

Because money is fungible, federal agencies are, in effect, funding nonsensical research on baby naming and meditation therapy at the expense of science’s Next Big Thing. As Coburn said in the introduction to his study of nsf: “A dollar lost to mismanagement, fraud, inefficiency, or a dumb project is a dollar that could have advanced scientific discovery. This report alone documents at least $65 million in wasteful spending on low-priority projects, $19 million lost to fraud, $1.2 billion in duplication, and $1.9 billion in other forms of mismanagement. Altogether this report identifies over $3 billion lost to waste, fraud, duplication, and mismanagement.”

Organizations within nsf, nih, usda and epa have shown themselves to be systematically incapable of consistently discriminating good science from bad. What is clearly needed is congressional action to strip unworthy federal organizations of the ability to disperse research funds.

This won’t happen, however, unless there is pressure on Congress to do it, which presumably would need to come from the editors of major research journals, organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (which, recall, is headed by Alan Leshner), and responsible scientists whose research has been preempted by the funding of unworthy projects. (Research funding is, after all, a zero-sum game.) But the courage from any of these quarters to air publicly the government funding agencies’ dirty little secrets has been lacking, and there has been only pusillanimity and politically correct silence. Except, of course, for the new Golden Goose award — which, from where I sit, looks more like a turkey.


Henry I. Miller is the Robert Wesson fellow in scientific philosophy and public policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. A physician and molecular biologist, he was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the FDA.