Government Relations Update

NIH Research Funding Sparks Media and Congressional Scrutiny

Researchers are finding themselves fielding questions about their work's economic impact as well as scientific importance.

By Karen Studwell

As the country waits for an uptick in the economy, news organizations and the blogosphere have been focused on how the federal government is spending the $787 billion in job creation and economic stimulus funds appropriated by Congress and the Obama administration through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). The National Institutes of Health (NIH) received $10.4 billion dollars in ARRA funds. Consequently, a growing number of scientists have found their research garnering more media attention than ever before and having to answer questions about not only its scientific importance, but also its economic impact.

Stimulus Funds in the Media
New levels of transparency, including a dedicated website, have provided everyone, including the media, with more information about how the NIH is spending its economic stimulus dollars. During the summer, several NIH research projects funded with stimulus money - including projects examining diet and exercise programs for those with mental illness, speech development in children, physical and mental health consequences of sexual behavior, and attention and memory - have been reported in local and national media, usually raising the question of their impact on job creation. As of early September, NIH had yet to release nearly 15,000 additional awards made with stimulus funds and so this media scrutiny may be just the tip of the iceberg.

Congressional Scrutiny Leads to Vote Against Research
Even for those scientists who do not receive ARRA funds, there is still concern that negative publicity could result in loss of funding for their research. This worst case scenario occurred in July when the House passed an appropriations bill amendment sponsored by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) that would rescind funding for three specific peer-reviewed grants that explored HIV/AIDS prevention in international settings. According to Issa, "These studies are clearly not high priorities for U.S. citizens, suffering from disease here at home, who could benefit from the $5 million the NIH plans to spend on foreign alcoholics and prostitutes. We need to get the NIH's priorities in line with those of the American people."

When Congress returns from its August recess, the Senate is expected to move forward on its own version of the appropriations bill. APA and the broader scientific community are working to educate the Senate about the importance of protecting the NIH's peer-review system from political interference as well as the need for the United States to maintain its leadership in HIV/AIDS research globally. As the Senate would have to agree to keep the language targeting these grants, APA will be working to ensure that the language is removed before the final bill is passed.

What Scientists Can Do
Most scientists, of course, are not expecting negative media attention on their peer-reviewed research projects, let alone congressional attempts to rescind funding. Nevertheless, it is wise for all scientists receiving government funds to be prepared to answer questions about their research.

To help prepare scientists, APA's Science Directorate has developed a pamphlet that provides useful advice for researchers who may be faced with increased scrutiny about their work. Even if their research is not under scrutiny, it is essential that all scientists are able to speak in lay terms about both the need for their research and its benefit to the public health.

APA's Science Government Relations Office works to educate Congress about the importance of peer review and the need to support a wide range of research. In 2004, APA and 60 other scientific and public health organizations came together to form the Coalition to Protect Research to respond to congressional attacks on peer-reviewed research. If you would like to lend your support to the protection of peer review, you may join the 5,000 scientists that have signed CPR's Petition to the U.S. Congress to Support Scientific Integrity that is shared with Congress in discussions of federal research funding and policy.