August 10, 2010 Liz Borkowski, MPH 12Comment

Senators John McCain and Tom Coburn have released a report on “100 Stimulus Projects that Give Taxpayers the Blues.” Their introduction rails against “torrential, misdirected government spending,” and short descriptions of the 100 projects singled out for ridicule are evidently supposed to disgust readers. What disgusted me, though, was an apparent lack of respect for scientific research.

Around one-fourth of the 100 projects involved scientific research, and I have to wonder whether their criteria for inclusion was a word that might make a sixth-grader giggle. Monkeys! Ants! Hot flashes! They sound goofy, so they must be wasteful, right?

Emily Badger at Miller-McCune has already delved into several and explained why they’re important:

• Studying Venus’s atmosphere – which, unlike Earth’s, isn’t complicated by oceans – can help us better understand our own. Earlier research on Venus’s atmosphere helped us understand the role of chlorofluorocarbon’s in destroying Earth’s ozone layer.

• Studying ants can help us learn about ecosystems and make better-informed decisions about nature reserves; leaf cutter ants “also cultivate the Steptomyces bacterium, which is the source of about half of the antibiotics produced by pharmaceutical companies.”

• Studying methods for freezing rat sperm can lead to more efficient practices in laboratories that use rats to study human diseases

• Studying the effects of alcohol labeling and a soda tax on consumption can allow us to develop more effective strategies for reducing excessive alcohol consumption and obesity.

McCain and Coburn complain that these projects are a poor use of taxpayer dollars, but do they not understand that research informing health interventions can potentially save taxpayer money and improve quality of life? In addition to the studies Badger describes that aim to reduce excess alcohol consumption and obesity, there are other projects on the list that have the potential to contribute to public health gains:

Comparative Effectiveness of Web-based Mobile Support for the DC Tobacco Quitline
Tobacco quitlines have enormous potential for smoking cessation, but they can’t “provide intensive, momentary support following the dozens of temptations and lapses that typically characterize a cessation attempt.” The 700 participants who contact the Washington, DC Quitline will be randomized to receive either the standard quitline programming (6 counseling sessions and free nicotine replacement therapy), or the standard quitline programming plus access to the Mobil Quitline Enhancement system via a web-enabled cell phone provided by the study. The American Legacy Foundation researchers explain:

This MQE system is designed to fill the gaps between quitline calls with ready access to a menu of evidenced-based treatment components, while also providing DCQL counselors with detailed information about their clients’ ongoing progress with cessation – two developments that constitute a major advance over standard quitline programming … Relative to usual care, we expect that MQE will improve outcomes by improving delivery, utilization and thereby effectiveness of DCQL programming.

In other words, this intervention has the potential to make existing smoking cessation programs even more effective, leading to a reduction in smoking rates. McCain and Coburn evidently don’t desire this outcome if it means that smokers will get new phones at taxpayer expense.

Effect of Cocaine Self-Administration on Metabotropic Glutamate Systems
Wake Forest University researchers are studying the role of the neurotransmitters dopamine and glutamate in addiction. Yes, this involves administering cocaine to monkeys – so funny! Let’s all take a minute to chuckle over that one. Then let’s think about something not so funny: The toll of addiction on addicts, their families, and their communities. The National Institute on Drug Abuse summarizes this toll and science’s role in reducing it:

Through scientific advances we now know much more about how exactly drugs work in the brain, and we also know that drug addiction can be successfully treated to help people stop abusing drugs and resume their productive lives.

Drug abuse and addiction are a major burden to society. Estimates of the total overall costs of substance abuse in the United States–including health- and crime-related costs as well as losses in productivity–exceed half a trillion dollars annually. This includes approximately $181 billion for illicit drugs, $168 billion for tobacco, and $185 billion for alcohol. Staggering as these numbers are, however, they do not fully describe the breadth of deleterious public health–and safety–implications, which include family disintegration, loss of employment, failure in school, domestic violence, child abuse, and other crimes.

Understanding the neurochemistry of addiction has the potential to lead to more effective prevention and treatment. If that requires getting monkeys high, this taxpayer is all for it.

Effectiveness of Integral Yoga on Objective and Subjective Menopausal Hot Flashes
Researchers for this project – also at Wake Forest University – will recruit 60 newly menopausal women and randomly assign them to a group that will participate in weekly yoga sessions for 10 weeks, an educational control group, or a waitlist control groups. Hot flashes will be monitored subjectively and by ambulatory hot-flash monitors for three three-day periods during the study. Heart rate variability and salivary cortisol will be measured at baseline, mid-treatment and end of treatment, because “sympathetic arousal mediated through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis has been theorized as the mechanism of increased stress and anxiety and vasomotor symptoms.” (“Vasomotor” refers actions that causes blood vessels to constrict or dilate.) This is a pilot grant that aims to obtain preliminary data on the efficacy of yoga for reducing menopausal hot flashes; a secondary aim is to determine study feasibility, presumably so a larger trial can be conducted.

I know hot flashes might sound funny (and sweating menopausal women doing yoga even funnier), but they decrease the quality of life for millions of women. Women with severe hot flashes often rely on pharmaceutical treatments, which can have problematic side effects. Yoga, while it can cause injuries in some cases, can also have beneficial effects, including improved strength, flexibility, and balance. If research can identify a relatively low-cost intervention (whether it’s yoga or something else) that reduces hot flashes and also has the potential to improve overall health, I’ll consider it money well spent.

Improving Older Adult Cognition: The Unexamined Role of Games and Social Computing Environments
Researchers from North Carolina State University and Georgia Institute of Technology want to help developers and researchers design “brain games” that will help older adults improve their cognition and reduce age-related decline. They’ll start by using a commercially available game, Boomblox-Wii, that “contains the hypothesized variables necessary for cognitive improvement: novelty, attentional demand, and social interaction.” The study description on the website doesn’t go into detail about the groups in the study, but measures of their abilities pre- and post-test will help the researchers determine “which variables or combinations of variables most improve the cognition and everyday functioning of older adults.” The team will implement the variables shown to most improve cognition and functioning in a new game designed specifically for older adults – and they’ll produce guidelines for others to use in designing effective “brain games.”

I know it might seem funny to imagine Grandma playing a Wii, but if it helps her stave off cognitive decline, isn’t that a good thing?

I’d like to think that Senators McCain and Coburn approve of the goals of reducing rates of smoking, preventing and treating addictions more effectively, reducing hot flashes, and keeping older adults cognitively healthy. As a taxpayer, I fully support government funding of research that has the potential to achieve these and other public health goals. Do Senators McCain and Coburn not agree with that premise? Did they even try to understand the research projects they’re condemning? Or are they happy to misunderstand scientific research if it lets them score cheap political points?

12 thoughts on “Scoring Political Points by Misunderstanding Science

  1. Is it really that surprising to see that they’re trying to imitate William Proxmire? I mean, how many primary challenges did he have to worry seriously about?

  2. Their front page list includes:

    “• $308 million for a joint clean energy venture with…BP”

    Even conservatives attack BP.

    [Irrelevant but I will say it here because of BP reference. It’s a lot more radical to say BP is a normal or even good EHS corporation, than to attack BP as an outlaw.]

  3. I don’t know if anyone remembers, but during the last presidential campaign Palin made fun of government studying the genetics of fruit flies.

    I just watched an incredible Rachel Maddow: she came up with a wonderful phrase: the war on brains.

    Of course fruit flies have been an absolute cornerstone in understanding the science and theory of genes.


  4. While I am loathe to credit the aforementioned politicians with any great intellectual prowess, I am far too cynical to believe they are really that stupid or ignorant. It is all about the political gains.

    Because of course, everyone knows that smokers and dopers are just prone to lousy decision making, that God made women that way for a reason, God made global warming for a reason and God caused dementia in the elderly for a reason. As far as the ants go…Yeah, they really probably are that ignorant and stupid.

  5. This isn’t the first time Republicans have pulled this kind of stunt, and won’t be the last. In addition to Sarah Palin, there was Bobby Jindal’s ridicule of “something called volcano monitoring” last year (several volcanos have erupted in the ~18 months since, including at least one in Alaska, and one in Iceland that caused serious air travel disruptions for several days this spring), and I am vaguely recalling an attack of exactly the same kind as the present case from two or three years ago.

    @DCS: I’m a few years too young to have heard about Proxmire’s antics in real time, but I recall that he became infamous for his “Golden Fleece” awards. That, IIRC, was attacking one project at a time, and he tended to target big-ticket items like the manned space program. This is the work of bullies picking on small-time PIs.

  6. The McCain/Coburn ‘report’ and its supporters criticize these ARRA-funded research projects as both scientifically unjustified and failing to create or protect American jobs. I have served on review panels for these grants and they are wrong on both counts. ARRA-related applications were subject to the same two-tier scientific review (peer then programmatic) as are normal research applications. To suggest they were not meritorious just illustrates an ignorance about how the funding process actually works. As for jobs, most research grants, including ARRA-applications, use 60-70% of their ‘direct’ budget for personnel costs including salaries and fringe benefits. Those highly skilled workers of course go out into the community to purchase goods and services. In addition, every NIH-funded research grant also has attached to it an ‘indirect’ cost, money given by the NIH directly to the host institution, for maintaining the infrastructure needed to support the research. This ultimately includes salaries for janitors, engineers, security officers, secretarial staff, etc.. In my opinion, money for research grants has a more direct effect on our local economy than just about any other government investment. And, guess what, we get a bunch of science out of all that investment too!

  7. Isn’t Senator Colburn a big proponent of alternative medicine who got his nose out of joint when it was reported last year that scientific investigation has found no support for the vast majority of it? Talk about waste of money.

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