Senators, Panelists Clash Over Benefits of Research Funding

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By Greg Langlois

Research review panels considering applications for federally funded grants need independent members and freedom from applicant influence, lawmakers and panelists said at a Senate subcommittee hearing Oct. 18.

Those requirements and others are included in a bill Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) will introduce, and he says it would provide federal taxpayers a better return on research investment. The hearing also addressed research transparency, possible perverse incentives for researchers, and the overall value of federal research funding.

Paul’s bill would:

  •  Require research review panels to include an expert in an unrelated field and a “taxpayer advocate” focused on the value of the proposed research;
  •  Prohibit agencies from accepting review panelist recommendations from applicants or disclosing the identities of any panelists;
  •  Make research grant applications and completed papers publicly available; and
  •  Establish a presidentially appointed special inspector general serving as a taxpayer advocate for federally funded research.

Fairness, Utility Questioned

At some agencies, grant applicants can recommend who should review their proposals, Paul said. Some application books and guidance advise applicants to push for favorable panelists, he said.

“We teach people how to get grants and we say, ‘Find people who agree with you and get them on the committee, and if you know one that already disagrees with you, make sure you keep them off the committee,’” Paul said. “This is baking in bias, and it’s unacceptable.”

There’s no evidence federal funding of science in universities and research institutions in which researchers are free to “follow their own curiosity” leads to economic or technological growth, said Terence Kealey, adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute. Free-market research does lead to growth, he said, because scientists in industry work with companies with the technology and personnel seeking to commercialize their efforts.

“In industry, scientists are ultimately judged by their technology” that ultimately benefits society at large, Kealey said. “But the government funding of science makes scientists answerable not to technology, not to stockholders, but to fellow scientists.”

That leads to a peer review system with a “group of people all agreeing with each other on which particular paradigm they wish to support,” he said. It also rewards scientists not for what they achieve, but for the number of papers they publish and which journals they appear in, he said.

One solution would be to “set the default to open” for research methodology, data, and claims, said Brian Nosek, executive director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Open Science.

“This is not a very expensive or difficult proposition, but it does require a mandate,” Nosek said. “This one action would dramatically increase the public benefit from our investments in science.”

Congress should require agencies to make federally funded research data and materials publicly accessible when findings are issued or the grant period ends, he said. Researchers would need to provide justification for delaying or not sharing data at all, such as out of concern for privacy or intellectual property rights, he said.

In the health arena, the National Institutes of Health’s ClinicalTrials.gov site provides open access information on publicly and privately supported clinical studies. Federal law requires the NIH to post information about certain federally or privately funded clinical trials, and the NIH’s policy is to require all NIH-funded clinical trials to be registered on the site and include summary results information.

Such transparency allows other researchers to make independent assessments of a claim, Nosek said, and see if they can replicate it.

“You might recognize a flaw, think of an alternative approach, or have an idea about how to extend what I did to learn more about the phenomenon,” Nosek said. “Moreover, by sharing how I arrived at the claim, I give you the opportunity to reproduce the evidence. If you can independently obtain similar results, then our confidence in the claim increases.”

No Incentive for Rare Disease Research?

Democrats at the hearing stressed that in some cases, only federal funding provides the impetus for scientific advances.

“In particular my concern is for cures that we need for rare diseases,” said Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). There’s little profit motive for conditions that affect a relatively small number of people, such as lupus, sickle cell disorders, and Tay-Sachs disease, she said.

Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) said there was no private-sector interest in developing a vaccination for a mosquito-transmitted disease, eastern equine encephalitis, that spread in her state. Its rarity provided no incentive, she said.

Industry-funded research necessarily operates on short timelines and focuses on immediate returns on investment, said Rebecca Cunningham, associate vice president for research in health sciences at the University of Michigan’s Office of Research. Long-term federal investment can lead to unanticipated breakthroughs, she said.

“The kind of basic science research that might be funded now might be what gives the cure for your rare disease in 15 or 20 years from now,” she said. “And that’s not an investment anyone in the room could know upfront would cure that disease.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Langlois in Washington at glanglois@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Randy Kubetin at RKubetin@bna.com

For More Information

The draft bill is available at http://src.bna.com/tvm.

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