Optimism for science in 2009 (and two budget-saving ideas)

As 2008 ends, I’m feeling very optimistic about the new year, principally because we here in the U.S. have elected Barack Obama, a new President who represents a dramatic change away from the policies of the past eight years. In the scientific arena, the Bush administration has been a disaster in more ways than I care to list. Not only have the Bushies politicized many, many areas of science, but their political views have almost always hindered or reversed progress in important scientific areas. But let’s look forward to the new year and to a new, re-invigorated U.S. science program.

Of course, the Bushies have also saddled us with an enormous debt burden, over $10 trillion dollars by one recent estimate (Harper’s magazine, December 2008). That number is so stunningly large that it might seem to leave no room for optimism – with such a gigantic debt, how can we hope for progress in anything, much less “discretionary” areas like scientific research?

Well, I’m still optimistic, but I know we’ll see little or no increase in the budgets of the U.S.’s top scientific agencies, including NIH, NSF, NASA, NOAA, and others. So here are two constructive suggestions for how to save significant funds at one agency, NIH, without adversely affecting scientific progress.

1. Get rid of the security fence and all the additional pointless security operations at NIH headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland. For those who haven’t visited NIH in the past few years, there is now a high metal fence (operational since 2005) surrounding the entire campus, and an elaborate security screening operation that every visitor must go through. Getting a car onto campus is now nearly impossible – every car has to be searched – and visitors have to plan for at least 20 minutes of extra time to get to their destination. This makes it much more difficult for NIH scientists to have visitors or to host conferences on the NIH campus – and it’s an utter waste of money.

Over at scienceblogs.com, there was an entertaining post on this topic last month by Mark Hoofnagle, who offered the opinion that “NIH security is run by paranoid idiots.” While I can’t say I agree with that sentiment, I share his feeling when he writes, “I hope in the next administration the first thing they do is tear down that stupid fence and treat the NIH like any other academic medical campus.” And if they get rid of all the accompanying security – which is really just “security theater”, as a writer in The Atlantic recently opined – they can save millions (probably tens of millions) of dollars per year.

2. Readers of my blog will probably guess my second cost-cutting suggestion for NIH: eliminate the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). This center was created at the behest of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin in 1992, not for any scientific reason, but because he personally believed in the efficacy of bee pollen as a medical treatment (see this NY Times article). There was never any need for this – any promising therapy can be studied in one of the existing Institutes, as has happened many times in the past. NCCAM has become a center for a raft of poorly-designed studies that would not pass review at the other institutes. Furthermore, in its 16 years of existence, NCCAM has failed to show that any “alternative” treatment works – the best that I can say about it is that some of its studies have showed that some pseudo-scientific treatments don’t work.

Like many government projects, though, part of NCCAM’s mission now is to perpetuate itself. So one of its major activities is to fund training centers that will educate health professionals in CAM treatments – even though its own studies have failed to show that those treatments work. This is how a government agency perpetuates itself. NCCAM is hopeless: its advisory council is required to include at least half its members from CAM disciplines such as “chiropractic, acupuncture and Oriental medicine. naturopathic medicine and massage therapy” – and when the board recently dropped below that percentage, CAM advocacy groups such as he Integrated Healthcare Policy Consortium and Academic Consortium for Complementary and Alternative Health Care wrote to NIH to complain. These groups are very active in promoting NCCAM, and they will continue to be as long as they make money by offering their various (and ineffective) alternative therapies.

Let’s get rid of NCCAM entirely before it’s too late. Former NIH Director Harold Varmus tried to put more scientific controls on the original CAM office, and Harkin responded with legislation that made NCCAM into a much-larger Center, with a budget that now exceeds $200 million. These funds could be put to far better use elsewhere in NIH. So without increasing the NIH budget, we could effectively increase the funds available for research by eliminating NCCAM.
(Note that others have suggested eliminating NCCAM too – see the excellent article by Wallace Sampson at Quackwatch).

I know that both these suggestions – modest as they are – are unlikely to be followed any time soon. But I will remain stubbornly optimistic that the Obama administration will choose a new NIH Director who has a strong, positive vision for the future of biomedical research, and who will be willing to take on anti-science interest groups – including Senators who want to promote pseudoscience – and start reversing the last eight years of policies. A few weeks ago the Obama administration announced that Varmus will be co-chair of its scientific advisory committee, and Varmus has shown in the past that he’s willing to take on NCCAM. Perhaps with stronger support from the President this time, he and others who agree with him will succeed.


  1. First!

    That damn fence. I wonder how many R01s it cost. 100 maybe? They probably contracted out to some big donor too.

  2. Amen to almost all of your post Steven. I have to say I doubt the NCCAM is going anywhere at this point - being around for 16 years is all it takes to become a full-blown institution in our history-lacking/ignoring society. Even if they didn't have a lot of support from people in office, there are a ton of regular citizens that would probably rush to their rescue, even though they don't know the facts about why it was started and what they do there.

  3. I disagree with your assessment. Such things as adult stem research such as finding out certain adult stems cells have the ability to regenerate many different types of cells. Also, they can be reprogrammed back to the embryonic stage. Adult stem cell research has flourished under Bush, and show much promise in treating diseases.

    the Bushies have also saddled us with an enormous debt burden, over $10 trillion dollars by one recent estimate

    Here I agree, social programs like paying for medicine increased under Bush but will change for next year. Of course the impact of 9/11, the two wars, one of which is whining down while the other in Afgan needs an increase of forces there.

    Then the money crisis. Before America became an nation, King George III outlawed the interest free independent currency of the colonies. This in turn forced people to borrow from the central bank in England. Many became in debt as a result.

    In 1919, Woodrow Wilson wrote:

    "I am the most unhappy man, I have unwittingly ruined by country. A great industrial nation is now controlled by it's own system of credit."

    The feds during Woodrow Wilson tenure as President increased the money supply by 100 percent. In 1920, the fed call in those loans, and there was panic.

    The feds increased the money supply again over 60 percent from 1921-1929. The margin loan was created. This loan would allow putting down only 10 percent and yet own 100 percent of the stock. The catch was, this loan could be called in at anytime, and the loan must then be paid off in 24 hours.

    Margin loans were called in, causing a panic, and a depression. One of the debacles to end this depression was the 1933 gold seizure. Everyone in America had to turn over their gold or face prison time. Eventually America was taken off the gold standard.

    Fast forward to the recent loan crisis. Feds create money with interest attached. In order to get out of debt, the Feds create more money. A vicious cycle.

    People were paying little or nothing down on houses, taking out debt over 100 percent of what they could actually pay back, assuming the house would increase in value and they would sell it before they could no longer pay off the house.

    Banks were making tons of money off of bad loans, people who normally wouldn't get loans were finding it easy to obtain them. The worse credit you had the more interest you would have to pay.

    In 2005, the Senate tried to pass a bill reforming the loan system, but to no avail. Both Dems and Republicans didn't want to rock the boat of people owning homes and it was keeping the economy and stock market going.

    Last summer those loans were called in, and panic erupted. The feds created more money (700 billion dollars) with interest to bailout out the banks, making it a federalized system.

    History repeats itself, you need money for science projects or research, no problem the feds can create money with interest...lol

  4. Michael, your comments are mostly a long non-sequitur - I wasn't writing about the Great Depression or about how it resembles our current financial crisis.

    You did make one comment I'd like to respond to, though, when you disagreed with my post because "Adult stem cell research has flourished under Bush, and show much promise in treating diseases." I'm actually very supportive of adult stem cell research - but I disagree with you that it has fluorished under Bush. In fact, stem cell research of all types has lagged because of Bush's ban on embryonic stem cell research, and NIH funding for adult stem cell research has been anemic at best. A few individual states have created stem cell funds of their own - including Maryland, where I'm a member of the state's Stem Cell Research Commission. But it makes far more sense to have a national program funding stem cell research, as we do for all other areas of biomedical science.

    And to Vern: I admit that it's unlikely that NCCAM will go away, but I'm trying to be optimistic. If enough scientists speak out, I think there's a chance, albeit a small one, that NCCAM could fade away.

  5. Hey Steven did you happen to see this?


    Career development program for CAM. I can think of any number of young, legit, scientists who could use such a thing.

  6. No, I didn't see that new announcement from NIH - although NCCAM has had these in the past. This is how institutes such as NCCAM perpetuate themselves - they fund training for scientists, in this case "to provide research training support for CAM Practitioners with clinical doctorates, who have had limited opportunities for research training, but a strong desire to pursue a career in CAM research."

    The result is to create a new pool of advocates in favor of NCCAM. It's like a virus - you have to kill it before it replicates out of control.


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="http://www.fieldofscience.com/">FoS</a> = FoS

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.