Weird Science | Citizens Against Government Waste

Weird Science

The WasteWatcher

In John Hughes’ 1985 sophomoric romp, Weird Science, a pair of hormonal high-schoolers manufacture the girl of their dreams with the help of a Barbie doll, a home computer, and a well-timed bolt of lightning.  It was an absurd premise, but if recent grant recipients are any guide, it might be a good candidate for funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). (N.B.: “NSF” is commonly used by banks to connote “insufficient funds.”) 

NSF grants have long been questioned by members of congress and the media.  In 2011, Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) released a 73-page report entitled The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope, which revealed a litany of inexplicable projects.  While the misuse of taxpayer dollars in the report range from Antarctic Jell-O wrestling to satirical rap YouTube videos, one of the most widely cited projects studied shrimp on treadmills.

In February, 2014, Citizens Against Government Waste filed a Freedom of Information Act request with NSF, requesting documents regarding the following grants:

·      $1,499,718 for “Does Community-Based Rangeland Ecosystem Management Increase the Resilience of Coupled Systems to Climate Change in Mongolia?”

·      $339,958 for “Ecosystem Resilience to Human Impacts: Ecological Consequences of Early Human-Set Fires in New Zealand.”

·      $276,586 for “The Prehistory of Chiapas, Mexico.”

·      $246,454 for “Transnational Adoptees and Migrants: From Peru to Spain.”

·      $235,494 for “An Analysis of Disturbance Interactions and Ecosystem Resilience in the Northern Forest of New England.”

·      $147,460 for “The Reciprocal Dynamics of Family Transformation Through International Marriage Migration.”

·      $107,570 for “Collaborative Research: the Kalavasos and Maroni Built Environments Project.  Investigating Social Transformation in Late Bronze Age Cyprus.”

·      $105,622 for “Can Institutions Cure Clientelism.”

As of July 24, 2014, CAGW has received documents for just two of these eight projects: those concerning international marriage migration and human-set fires in New Zealand.

In addition to weird science at NSF, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has funded dubious projects.  In 2013, Dr. Dong-Pyou Han of Iowa State University (ISU) was caught manipulating the results of an HIV vaccine experiment by Harvard scientists, who reported him to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Research Integrity (ORI).  Dr. Han’s false encouragement about the success of his research succeeded in attracting $19 million in NIH grants.  He was debarred from federal funding for three years by the ORI, and ISU agreed to reimburse the NIH for the full amount of Dr. Han’s salary.  However, the university retained the remainder of the grant.  

This result did not satisfy Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who took an interest in the case and pushed for tougher measures, including the recoupment of the remaining grant money.  In June, 2014, Dr. Han was indicted on four felony counts of making false statements, and is now free on bail after pleading not guilty.

While Dr. Han’s fraud has received widespread attention, he is certainly not alone in breaching research ethics.  The June 2008 edition of Nature included the results of a study that found approximately 3 percent of all research projects were subject to fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism.  NIH grants support approximately 155,000 researchers, and if this rate of misconduct applied to all of them, there would be about 4,650 such cases every year.  The ORI conducts on average only 24 investigations annually, which equals less than 1 percent of these 4,650 projected violations.  

As Senator Grassley and others have argued, even when the ORI detects fraud, its enforcement is inadequate.  Only two of the 11 individuals sanctioned by ORI in 2013 were banned; the majority of the others only required additional supervision.  Furthermore, although Dr. Han was banned by ORI and eventually confronted with legal action, the NIH grants that rewarded his fraud have remained with ISU and its research team.

In a time of record deficits, the United States cannot afford to waste its money on frivolous or fraudulent projects.  While the NIH and NSF should be commended for the vital work that they carry out every day on meritorious causes, they should also be held accountable for their mismanagement of taxpayer dollars.  With better oversight and common sense, these institutions can save millions of dollars without impeding the progress of truly worthy research.

Colin Gamm

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