Defining Ideas

The Brewing Crisis in Science

Monday, July 2, 2012
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Image credit: 
The University of Iowa Libraries

From 1975 to 1987, Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) 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 criticized various government-funded research projects.

A student doing lab research in the 1950s (Photo credit: The University of Iowa Libraries)

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 doesn’t know what she doesn’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 how genes work and the process of ageing.

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.”

“Don’t laugh, you’re paying for it.”

Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), 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.” 

This undertaking may help to educate the public and politicians about the nature of science, but it should not obscure the fact that many research projects that sound funny are ill-conceived and represent waste or abuse of government funds. (Humorist P.J. O’Rourke once quipped that the federal government’s motto should be, “Don’t laugh, you’re paying for it.”)

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.”

It’s astonishing that some of the projects awarded passed any kind of peer-review for merit. The first two awards went to the National Science Foundation. The first NSF grant, for $84,000, 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 has made a habit of fleecing American taxpayers. In April 2011, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), 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 non-scientists 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; and when the best time is to buy a ticket to a sold out sporting event.

The 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 own experience confirms the thrust of Coburn's report. Some of the projects were of the overtly ridiculous variety. I once suffered through a presentation about an NSF-funded study on the ethics of nanotechnology research. The investigator interviewed 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 that: "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.

From Non-Science to Nonsense

Beyond whether or not such projects deserve the attention and largess of the National Science Foundation is the deeper question of whether they go beyond non-science into the realm of nonsense, which nevertheless claims federal resources. 
The complete breakdown of effective peer-review in certain disciplines and organizations gives rise to similar waste and abuse 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 the interventions tested have proven, for the most part, 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."

Worst of all is the $60-plus million multi-center 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 was 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.

A Brewing Crisis

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 having 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 18 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." 

Yet another federal research boondoggle is the USDA's $4 million yearly program on risk-assessment for "genetically engineered organisms," run the by 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, the 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 of discriminatory, regulatory oversight, which is another story). There is no scientific rationale for a dedicated set-aside for risk-assessment research for this pseudo-category. It’s like doing risk-assessment on all the objects that have doors.

Because money is fungible, federal agencies are, in effect, funding research on baby-naming and meditation therapy at the expense of science's Next Big Thing. Organizations within NSF, NIH, and USDA 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, and responsible scientists whose research has been preempted by the funding of inferior projects. (Research funding is, after all, a zero-sum game.) But the courage from any of these quarters to air these dirty little secrets publicly has been lacking, and there has been only pusillanimity and politically correct silence. Except, of course, for the new Golden Goose award. But from where I sit, it looks like a turkey.

The Real Problem

I have no problem with the government funding basic research. That is not the problem. The problem is, under the guise of funding research, the government is propping up failed business ideas like wind power, domestic solar, ethanol, etc.

---Rob Tholemeier