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Republican senators target “wasteful” science spending in stimulus package

It was doubtless only a matter of time before enterprising critics of the Obama administration picked through the trove of projects funded by 2009’s $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — a.k.a the economic stimulus pacakge — for egregious examples of Big Government Waste.

Yesterday, Senators John McCain (Republican, Arizona) and Tom Coburn (Republican, Oklahoma) targeted 100 projects they say epitomize such waste in a report called “Summertime Blues: 100 Stimulus Projects that Give Taxpayers the Blues."

Science projects were not spared. At #94 on the list was a $363,760 grant to Palladian Partners Inc. of Silver Spring, Maryland, to, as the report puts it, “promote the good things being done with stimulus money by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).”

The report continues: “The project requires Palladian to develop `web-based real life stories that underscore job and infrastructure creation and accelerated ARRA research findings.’ Indeed, interested citizens can go to the NIH Recovery Act website and learn about the $12.2 million stimulus grant NIH is spending on “Facebook for Scientists” and another story on how “Researchers Pull in Big Bucks Under Recovery Act.””

It does not take a great deal of digging to discover that, for instance, the “Facebook for Scientists” is in fact an attempt to speed scientific—not social—communication, by helping researchers find collaborators. It automatically updates scientists’ profiles with new publications and positions so that researchers won’t have to spend time doing so manually.

The heading “Researchers Pull in Big Bucks Under Recovery Act” turns out to be a GenomeWeb headline describing $2.5 million and $2.0 million grants to researchers at Rockefeller University and Ohio State University (OSU). The Rockefeller grant, to assistant professor Sohail Tavazoie, is trying to uncoverr miRNAs that can be used to predict how a cancer patient will respond to chemotherapy. (Tavazoie has published related work in Nature.)

The other grant, to geneticist Carlo Croce at OSU, examines how the loss of a particular miRNA might be used to predict cancer patients’ repsonses when they are treated with demethylating agents.

As for the grant to Palladian Partners, an NIH spokesperson responded this morning: “The NIH website is the most direct, immediate and publicly-accessible way to make the results of NIH research transparent and useful to the public—specifically the [ongoing] results from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.”

McCain and Coburn’s list also aims to portray a California Academy of Sciences effort to capture, photograph, and analyze 3,000 species of exotic ants in east Africa and islands of the southwest Indian Ocean as a self-evident boondoggle. Under the heading “Ants Talk. Taxpayers Listen”, the $1.9 million National Science Foundation-funded project comes in at #6 on the list. The criticism calls to mind a mocking dismissal of fruit fly research by then-vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Then there is project #28, provocatively entitled: “Monkeys Get High for Science” – a $144,541 NIH grant to Wake Forest University researchers to study the effects of cocaine self-administration on gluamate levels.

NIH points out in its project description that “recent studies have shown that the addiction that hooks drug users could be linked to a chemical in the brain called glutamate. This research is trying to determine how the brain systems that use glutamate change during and after exposure to cocaine, so that cocaine addiction can more effectively be treated.”

The McCain and Coburn report has another take on the issue. How, it asks, can studying “drug-crazed primates” improve the national economy?

This gives the flavour of the report. There are plenty of other scientific targets on the list which, if nothing else, suggests a hot Washington DC summer will soon be transitioning into a rhetorically hot mid-term campaign season. Scientists be warned!


  1. Report this comment

    Kurt Magroo said:

    I gotta say I’m uncomfortable with the general Proxmire Golden Fleece vibe, but the first two you mention don’t seem terribly defensible.

    The grant to Palladin isn’t science, its NIH public relations.

    The “Facebook for Scientists” isn’t science either, but an expensive solution to a problem that other scientists have worked out either on their own (automatically running a pubmed search on themselves) or through free services like ResearchGate, which claims to have 400,000 members in the last two years. Or scientists could just have an undergrad update their publications list, as I was asked to do when I was an undergrad.

    It is troubling that the McCain-Coburn list contains items like the ant or glutamate studies. It only leads to trouble when politicians second guess the peer-review system for funding, flawed as it may be. As for Facebook for Scientists and NIH PR…uh…they kinda have a point.

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