The budget sequester has hit federal research hard, and the lions of the scientific research establishment are roaring. Bruce Alberts—editor of the journal Science and former president of the National Academy of Sciences—recently lamented the National Science Foundation's announcement that "it may award 1000 fewer research grants in 2013 than it did in 2012."
Still, all research is not created equal. Too much of what's dispensed is pork, overlaps with work that would otherwise be performed in the private sector, or supports poorly conceived or trivial experiments.
Public funding for scientific investigations should largely be limited to basic research or proof-of-principle experiments—which can be justified on the grounds that they are public goods. Federal research also should follow recognized experimental methodologies and focus on nontrivial questions or problems. Unfortunately, these seemingly obvious criteria are often sacrificed on the altar of scientific fads and political correctness.
The National Science Foundation is an example. A major driver of American science with an annual budget of over $7 billion, the NSF funds about one-fifth of all federally supported basic research at U.S. colleges and universities and 60% of all nonbiomedical life-science research. Yet a 2011 report, "NSF Under the Microscope," released by Sen. (and physician) Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) identified projects that will make plenty of Americans, scientists and nonscientists alike, shake their heads.
These studies include: how to ride a bike; when dogs became man's best friend; whether political views are genetically predetermined; and why the same teams always seem to dominate the NCAA basketball tournament. More recent studies funded by the NSF include "how power affects empathy" and an assessment of "the role of optimism and pessimism in shaping the political beliefs and behavior of Americans."
Most of these ill-advised projects are funded by the science foundation's Social, Behavioral and Economics Directorate. The social sciences grants were evaluated with more rigor when they were organizationally within the NSF's Biology Directorate. When these grants were split off, scientific rigor gave way to cronyism and narcissistic self-regard.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health is also plagued by a flawed mandate and the breakdown of effective peer review. NCCAM'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." But as infectious-disease specialist Dr. Paul Offit writes in "Do You Believe in Magic?", his new book, "There is no such thing as alternative medicine. There's only medicine that works and medicine that doesn't."
Many of the center's projects are hardly essential to advancing scientific knowledge. For example, one NCCAM-funded study published in 2011 found that cranberry juice cocktail was no better than placebo at preventing recurring urinary-tract infections. Other studies include, "Metabolic and Immunologic Effects of Meditation," "Long-Term Chamomile Therapy of Generalized Anxiety Disorder," and "Restorative Yoga for Therapy of the Metabolic Syndrome."
Much of the research funded by NCCAM, to the tune of $130 million annually, is an affront to NIH-funded investigators who are leaders in disciplines like cell and molecular biology, immunology and infectious diseases—but who are having increasing difficulty getting federal funding even for studies with obvious scientific merit.
Organizations within the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health (among other federal funding agencies) have shown themselves to be incapable of consistently discerning good science from bad. The public and responsible members of the scientific community should pressure Congress to, at the very least, improve the process for reviewing science research proposals. Better still, unworthy federal organizations should be stripped of the ability to dispense research funds.
Instead, Congress is being importuned for more money to offset the billions of sequester-related reductions in research funding (the cuts at NIH and NSF are $1.55 billion and $350 million respectively). At an April rally in Washington, D.C., thousands of scientists and patient advocates demanded more (not smarter) funding for biomedical research. The demonstrators chanted "more progress, more hope, more life." Emcee Cokie Roberts of NPR declared that "it could not be a stupider time to cut back on funding for medical research." She should have said that it could not be a stupider time to waste money on stupid research.
Dr. Miller is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. A physician and molecular biologist, he was the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology.