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July 25, 2016

GEN Hall of Shame

Capitol Hill Critics Second-Guess Agencies Using Satire, Sequestration, and SBIR Reauthorization

GEN Hall of Shame

Advocates for scientific research are fed up with Congressional challengers of research funding and are fighting back. [© laurent hamels/Fotolia]

  • Research funding agencies like the NIH and NSF have more friends, and more vocal friends, than ever in Capitol Hill these days, thanks to persistent Congressional lobbying and more effective public outreach by patient groups and science research advocacy coalitions.

    But that doesn’t mean research funding isn’t without its challenges. First, there’s the shadow of sequestration. While nobody is talking this election year about across-the-board spending cuts, the law that created sequestration continues to complicate Congressional discussion over how to spend taxpayer money, as seen last month in a flurry of Senate debate over whether to raise authorizations for defense and nondefense spending.

    Then there’s the issue of how to spend limited federal dollars. This year’s new wrinkle on an old skirmish pits research advocates, and the institutions and investigators who benefit from research spending, against supporters of two federal programs created to commercialize research discoveries, the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs. Ideally, research and commercialization should work hand-in-hand with members of Congress and not be forced to choose between one or the other.

    Finally, there’s the desire among some Senators to pick up the mantle of retired Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) as the most vocal spokesperson on Capitol Hill against wasteful federal spending. Three of the six people on this year’s list are among those jockeying for position as would-be waste-busters, continuing in a tradition set from 1975 to 1988 by then-Sen. William Proxmire (D-WI) and his “Golden Fleece” awards.

    Even with these challenges, the number of research funding critics continues to decrease if this list is any indication. Our first edition, dubbed the “GEN Hall of Shame” in 2013 consisted of 10 people, five senators and five representatives. That number shrunk to eight in 2015.

    Below are six members of Congress who over the past year have emerged, intentionally or otherwise, as second-guessers of funding NIH and other agencies that fund biopharma-related research. All but one of the members of Congress this year is a Senator. It’s not a reflection of where the Senate stands on research funding, as the Senate has proposed the biggest spending increase for NIH for fiscal 2017.

    Last month, the Senate Committee on Appropriations approved a $2 billion budget hike in its “markup” of a FY 2017 spending bill for the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS), Education, and Labor. That compares with $1.25 billion set earlier this month by the House Appropriations Labor–HHS Subcommittee, and the $825 million offered by President Obama’s proposed budget.

  • Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH)

    As Chairman of the House Small Business Committee, Chabot introduced the House version of a bill reauthorizing the SBIR and STTR grant programs a year ahead of their scheduled expiration. The measure had the support of the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY).

    As chairman of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, Vitter sponsored the Senate version of a bill reauthorizing the SBIR and STTR grant programs, along with the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH).

    The House bill (H.R. 4783) would increase the fraction of agencies’ extramural R&D budgets set aside for these programs by 2022 to 4.5% for SBIR and 0.6% for STTR. Advocates for basic research assert that the extra funding for SBIR and STTR would come at the expense of agencies that fund research grants, including NIH and NSF.

    “A mandatory increase in the SBIR/STTR allocation across federal agencies will result in fewer research opportunities for investigators in colleges and universities, nonprofit research institutes, and other dynamic research institutions,” the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) contends.1

    According to Chabot, federal agencies between 1982 and 2014 made 152,542 SBIR awards totaling $42 billion to small businesses toward developing innovative technologies.

    “These two initiatives have a proven track record of success in helping America’s small businesses compete and succeed in the global technology marketplace,” Chabot wrote in an op-ed published in The Hill. “In this era of globalization, making it easier for small businesses to develop and commercialize new, innovative products is essential for both our economic security and our national security.”2

  • Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ)

    With “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” setting box office records last December, Flake paid homage of sorts to the hit movie by releasing “Wastebook: The Farce Awakens.” The 286-page report, illustrated with lightsaber-wielding figures, included 100 examples of what he argued was mis-spending by the federal government.

    Among those examples was a $706,800 grant from the NSF to researchers from Duke University. The grant funded a study of fighting among Panamanian mantis shrimp—what Flake referred to as a “shrimp fight club.”

    “In the movie Fight Club, Tyler Durden played by Brad Pitt asks, ‘How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?’” Flake's report says. “But perhaps the more appropriate quote from the movie that puts federal funding for this study into perspective may be ‘we buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have.'”3

    Duke biologist Sheila Patek, through a university statement, defended the study as having scientific and even potential defense applications:  “What do we stand to learn from basic research on mantis shrimp? It turns out, a lot.”4

    Mantis shrimp strike with weapons operating at the same acceleration as a bullet in the muzzle of a gun, yet achieve high performance without explosive materials, Dr. Patek said. They use a toothpick-sized hammer that can break snail shells in water that humans can only break with a larger hammer in air. Their small, lightweight hammer resists fracture over thousands of uses. And unlike humans, they can strike in water at the speed of cars on a major highway without causing cavitation.

    “When we understand how mantis shrimp avoid cavitation during the rotation phase of their strikes while effectively using cavitation during their impact phase, the knowledge will undoubtedly improve the capabilities of ships, submarines, torpedoes, and other machines,” Patek said. “Our research has already led to the development of novel engineered materials that resist impact fracture, based directly on mantis shrimp hammers.”5

    Flake continued his war on alleged waste May 10 when he released “Twenty Questions: Government Studies that Will Leave You Scratching Your Head.” That report retold the tale of the research on inebriated birds cited a few months earlier by Sen. John McCain (see below), and weighed in against several other examples of studies Flake concluded should not have been federally funded. Among them was the $1 million NSF Graduate Research Fellowship grant awarded to Michael L. Smith of Cornell University to quantify and rate the pain of honey bee stings over 25 body locations on his body.

    While acknowledging a key limitation—a low sample size, namely himself—Smith said the study also offered an interesting insight: The least painful locations did not have the largest number of skin layers. “Clearly, skin thickness is not the only factor for predicting painfulness. Perhaps receptor thresholds are lower depending on the ‘importance’ of certain locations, or the CNS [central nervous system] reaction is amplified depending on the location of the sting.”6

  • Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)

    On January 7, McCain released the fourth edition of his “America’s Most Wasted,” highlighting 51 federally funded projects that according to the senator illustrate “Runaway Spending,” the 79-page report’s subtitle. One project faulted by McCain was a $51,326 grant awarded by NIH in 2011 to Christopher R. Olson, then a postdoc at Oregon Health and Science University, to study retinoid signaling in songbirds.7

    The grant partially funded a study, published in 2014, that found zebra finches who drank alcohol showed decreased amplitude and increased entropy in their singing, “the latter likely reflecting a disruption in the birds’ ability to maintain the spectral structure of song under alcohol.”8

    “While using songbirds to study human auditory behavior may be an important scientific endeavor, it’s doubtful that any American taxpayer would be pleased to know that their hard-earned tax dollars were going to get a bunch of birds so drunk that they slur their songs,” McCain’s report concluded.9

    In the study, however, Dr. Olson (now an assistant professor at Midwestern University) and colleagues said the results had relevance to human public health, including possibly spotting alcohol abuse. Because the birds’ song control circuitry is well mapped and the neuronal activity of its elements is readily accessible, researchers can readily test hypotheses about how alcohol affects the neuronal control of learned 

    “Such advances would help elucidate how alcohol affects vocal motor control in humans, where speech is markedly affected through as yet unclear mechanisms,” Dr. Olson and colleagues wrote. “An intriguing potential application would be the use of bioacoustics analysis of vocalizations to reliably detect inebriation or even mild intoxication in humans.”10

  • Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)

    Paul has taken aim at selected federally funded research projects by including them in “The Waste Report,” his ongoing effort to expose “egregious examples of waste within the U.S. government.” The senator on June 20 criticized the approval of about $500,000 in grants by the NIH’s National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) for studies into the rejection thresholds of people for spicy and bitter food and a $629,942 grant from the NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) that partially funded a 2012 study examining relationships between food and beverage adventurousness and taste phenotype.

    Three NIDCD grants, totaling $454,112, were awarded to John Edward Hayes of Pennsylvania State University toward examining how genetic variation in taste and pain receptors in the mouth may alter response to oral irritants commonly found in the food supply.

    “Better understanding of the basic biology behind bitterness and irritancy will help us understand the dietary choices individuals make, and may help us tailor diets that improve health and wellness while remaining enjoyable to eat,” according to the grant abstracts.11

    The NIAAA-funded study found that differences in food adventurousness offered a possible explanation for contradictory findings in past studies on the significance of 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP) bitterness phenotypes to food and beverage preference. “You would think the objective of the study would be prevention of alcohol abuse, not how to aid people in selecting alcohol they like,” Paul fumed.12

    But the 2012 study does have potential relevance to alcohol abuse given its finding that: “Differences in food adventurousness is one possible explanation for contradictory findings on the significance of PROP phenotypes to real world food/beverage preference, liking, and/or intake.” (emphasis added).13  The study also noted that heightened responsiveness to PROP is associated with self-reported intake of wine, citing past research by Valerie B. Duffy, Ph.D., R.D., of University of Connecticut, and colleagues.

    On June 14, Paul took issue with a 2-year, $375,786 NSF grant toward study of the costs and potential benefits of variability in public funding of science research14: “It seems kind of circular, getting federal research funding to study the importance of federal research funding.”15 The study was unnecessary, Paul contended because research funding for NSF, NIH, and overall rose roughly 7% per year after adjusting for inflation—though NIH endured a dozen years of yo-yo budgets between 2003 and last December before seeing a $2 billion bump, with increases of up to $2 billion under discussion for FY 2017.

    The NSF funding has furthered research into areas beyond funding variability: Principal investigator Joshua Graff Zivin of University of California, San Diego, and co-PI Pierre Azoulay of MIT’s Sloan School of Management acknowledged the grant in a February study that found the restrictive NIH funding of a few years back made scientists less likely to change institutions.16

  • Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV)

    Six months before his retirement as Senate majority leader, Reid in June led Senate Democrats in threatening to bring the appropriations process for all programs to a halt. At issue was a Republican measure to raise defense spending authorization by $18 billion. Democrats blocked that effort, just as Republicans blocked Democrats from attempting to match the increase with $18 billion in increased authorization for nondefense spending.

    The proposed increases fell under “emergency wartime funding” that is exempt from the “sequestration” required by the Budget Control Act of 2011. Back then, Reid let President Barack Obama, a fellow Democrat, convince him to include the across-the-board budget-cutting mechanism in the law, which requires Washington to otherwise cut at least $1.2 trillion in federal spending over 10 years—though Reid initially opposed the idea, Bob Woodward reported in his 2012 book “The Price of Politics.”

    The 5% across-the-board cut required for nondefense programs under sequestration shrunk NIH’s budget from $30.86 billion in FY 2012 to $29.15 billion the following year, before inching back up to $30.3 billion in FY 2015 and $32.31 billion in the current fiscal year. Reid responded to the resulting budget cuts at NIH and other agencies by blaming Republicans.

  • Sen. David Vitter (R-LA)

    As chairman of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, Vitter sponsored the Senate version of a bill reauthorizing the SBIR and STTR grant programs, along with the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH).

    The Senate SBIR/STTR reauthorization, which passed the committee on May 11, goes beyond the House version. It increases the fraction of agencies’ extramural R&D budgets set aside for these programs by 2028, to 6% for SBIR and 1% for STTR, and by making the SBIR and STTR programs permanent. Until now they have only been authorized for defined periods, with the current authorization approved through FY 2017.

    “It is often very difficult for smaller firms and entrepreneurs to find funding for their new ideas, especially in the critical early stages of research and development. That’s why the very existence of the SBIR and STTR programs is crucial,” Vitter said at a January 28 hearing. “These programs are vital to the success of many small businesses and have ultimately helped create thousands of new jobs by fostering innovation and stimulating the economy through public–private partnerships.”17

    Basic research advocates contend that the extra funding for SBIR and STTR would come at the expense of basic research funding for NIH and NSF. On May 10, 77 scientific and professional societies, higher education associations, universities, and research institutions expressed strong opposition to increasing the SBIR and STTR set-asides in a letter to leaders of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

    “There is no evidence that this increase is necessary or beneficial to the nation, and the larger set-aside will reduce the opportunity for other crucial sectors of the research enterprise to contribute to progress in science and technology,” namely universities and nonprofit research institutions, the 77 institutions wrote.18

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