Research is the lifeblood of technological innovation, which in turn drives economic growth and keeps America prosperous and competitive.
Government-funded scientific research runs the gamut from studies of basic physical and biological processes to the development of applications to meet immediate needs.
A good example of important medical research that the private sector is unlikely to perform is the recent federally funded ISCHEMIA study of patients with coronary artery disease. It found that invasive procedures to unclog blocked arteries, such as the insertion of stents, offered no benefit compared to medicines alone in people not immediately suffering from chest pain. They also performed no better in a composite of major heart disease outcomes including cardiac deaths, heart attacks, heart-related hospitalizations, and resuscitations after cardiac arrest. The study, which enrolled more than 5,000 patients and cost about $100 million, provides an important guide to cost-effective treatments of coronary disease.
Basic science that elucidates the fundamental processes in fields such as aging, cancer biology, immunology, and virology is also worthy of federal research funding. However, the definition of what constitutes "science" has gradually expanded to include sociology, economics, and "woo-woo" alternative medicine. Much of the spending on these disciplines by the nation's two major funders of nonmilitary research, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, which in total dispense about $44 billion, shortchanges taxpayers.
The NSF, whose mission is to ensure the United States's leadership in areas of science and technology that are essential to economic growth and national security, frequently funds politically correct but low-value research projects. A few doozies include the veiling-fashion industry in Turkey, Viking textiles in Iceland, the "social impacts" of tourism in the northern tip of Norway, and whether hunger causes couples to fight — using the number of pins stuck in voodoo dolls as a measure of aggressive feelings.
I once suffered through a presentation about an NSF-funded study of the ethics of nanotechnology research (a technology that deals with dimensions on the scale of less than 100 nanometers, the goal of which is to control individual atoms and molecules). The investigator conducted interviews with nanotechnology researchers in their offices, and part of her "research methodology" involved recording what kinds of screen savers were on their computers. The study concluded: "Narrative is an indispensable device for formulation of theory about [scientists'] 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." It sounds as though the study was of nanovalue to society.
Research funding in the geosciences, including climate change, is certainly legitimate — but not when it goes to ludicrous boondoggles such as a climate change musical that cost $697,177 to produce.
The primary culprit is the NSF's Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences. Underlying its ability to dispense grants is the wrongheaded notion that social science projects such as a study of animal depictions in National Geographic and a climate change musical are as important as research to identify early markers for Alzheimer's disease or pancreatic cancer. This is what happens when, as a former senior NSF official put it, "the inmates run the asylum."
As for the NIH, most of its budget, currently about $37 billion, goes to fund grant proposals from researchers at institutions nationwide. The proposals are not judged by their merits across all disciplines but are divided by categories of research — cancer, aging, eye diseases, etc. But one institute that was the brainchild of politicians, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (formerly the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine), on average funds far less-significant work than the others but receives significant resources.
NCCIH's stated mission is "to define, through rigorous scientific investigation, the usefulness and safety of complementary and integrative health interventions and their roles in improving health and health care." But in practice, "complementary and integrative" means implausible and poorly designed. One study supported by the center found that cranberry juice cocktail was no better than a placebo at preventing recurring urinary tract infections. Other supported studies include "Long-Term Chamomile Therapy of Generalized Anxiety Disorder," "The Use of Narrative in Public Health Research and Practice," and "Restorative Yoga for Therapy of the Metabolic Syndrome."
The more credible studies in research fields funded by NCCIH could be administered more effectively by other NIH components, such as the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke or the National Institute of Mental Health, where they would be more rigorously peer-reviewed.
In 2018, NIH could afford to fund only about 20% of the investigator-initiated research grant proposals it received. That the NCCIH was still allowed to spend $146.5 million in the last fiscal year, the most ever, is an affront to the NIH-funded researchers who are at the cutting edge of their disciplines and face increasing difficulty getting federal funding for studies that rank high on scientific merit.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has projected that China will soon overtake the U.S. in research and development funding. If the U.S. is to remain competitive in medical and scientific innovation, we must not only increase overall spending but also be more discerning about the nation's research priorities. A good first step would be for the scientific community to demand that politicians forego political correctness and "woo-woo" science and prioritize funding for research that advances America's interests.
Dr. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a Senior Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was a Research Fellow at the NIH and the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology.