Congress passes a colossally bad idea for science funding

When was the last time anyone in Congress passed a truly good idea? I can’t remember.

But they do manage to come up with bad ideas, and sometimes these ideas make their way into laws, causing no end of harm.

This month, two U.S. Congressmen have come up with the idea to offer prizes rather than grants for scientific research. They were inspired, according to a story in Science magazine, by DARPA’s prize competitions for robotic vehicle design, as well as the private XPRIZE competition.

Now Congress wants the National Institutes of Health to give out prizes for biomedical research. They've tucked this idea into the 21st Century Cures Act, a bill funding the NIH and FDA that was passed by the House of Representatives on July 10. Congressman Todd Young of Indiana and Andy Harris of Maryland amended the bill to require NIH to create a new prize competition.

This is a staggeringly bad idea. Why? Where do I begin? Well, first of all, biomedical research costs money–lots of money. Everyone I know in biomedical research, in which I’ve been working for 25 years, needs money before they make their discoveries. A prize at the end is nice, but you can't do anything if you can't pay for equipment, supplies, and (perhaps Congress will be surprised to learn this) people’s salaries.

Flawed though it may be, the current U.S. funding system works pretty well: scientists write up their ideas as proposals, NIH or NSF convenes panels of experts to review those proposals, and the best ones (more or less) get funded.

A prize, on the other hand, is awarded after the work gets done. If this is how we’re going to fund science, then very little good work will get done. Only rich people, or rich companies, will be able to compete for prizes in biomedical research. That's how science worked in the 1800s and before, when the only way to do science was to find a wealthy patron, or to be wealthy yourself. Not surprisingly, things moved slowly back then.

But wait, it gets worse. These NIH prizes will be decided by a small committee, in a setup that will be ripe for corruption. According to the new bill, the committee will have 9 members:
  • The NIH Director
  • 4 members appointed by the NIH Director
  • One member appointed by the Speaker of the House
  • One member appointed by the majority leader of the Senate
  • One member appointed by the minority leader of the House
  • One member appointed by the minority leader of the Senate
This just gets worse and worse. There’s no way that 9 people, even if they’re all great scientists, can choose the best idea from among all areas of biomedical research. This is why NIH convenes hundreds of scientific review panels every year to do peer review: they need experts who understand the specifics of the research.

These 9 people will be responsible for giving away $80 million per year in prizes. In the scientific world, that's a huge program. Look at it this way: the Nobel committee gives out five prizes of $3 million each, or $15 million per year. If this passes the Senate, Congress will have created a prize that is 5 times larger than the Nobels, to be handed out by a yet-to-be-named committee of 9.

But this committee is fraught with problems: 5 out of 9 members will be political appointees, with no requirements that any of them have any scientific or medical training. And because the Director of NIH is a political appointee, one could argue that all 9 are political appointees. What's more, the appointments will last for 5 years, making them truly powerful committee members who will be unaccountable to the public or to anyone else.

One thing is certain: the prize committee members will be flooded with lobbying efforts to sway their choices. This sounds a lot like how Congress works; or rather, how the ugly underbelly of Congress operates.

But wait: there's more! The House bill says that these competitions are open to
“any person … without regard to the person’s place of incorporation, primary place of business, citizenship, and residency.” 
In other words, NIH will give these prizes to foreign citizens–and companies! So apparently they will take some portion of NIH's budget, and instead of awarding it in grants to U.S. scientists, they will give prizes to companies in, say, Russia.

Don’t get me wrong: I think science should be supported in every country around the world. But each country has its own system, and the NIH is by far the most important source of funding for biomedical science in the U.S. We just can't afford to have NIH give out prizes to the entire world. Competition for grants is already fierce, with fewer than 20% of scientific proposals being funded today. Did I mention that this prize competition is a terrible idea?

Here's another little gem: the bill allows the NIH Director to outsource the administration of the prize competition to a private company, who can take 15% of the money for itself. Was a private contractor involved in writing this bill? I’m guessing some company is already making plans to siphon off precious research funds running these competitions–and I wouldn't be surprised if they had a hand in drafting the bill.

The 21st Century Cures Act has some great things in it, such as an extra $1.75 billion per year for NIH over the next 5 years. Many people, scientists and non-scientists alike, would like to see that happen. But Section 1002, Prize Competitions needs to be deleted when the Senate takes this up.

We could certainly do a better job allocating scarce funds to biomedical research in the U.S., but setting aside a large sum to be awarded by a politically-appointed Prize Committee at NIH is a staggeringly bad idea. Let’s stop this train before it leaves the station.

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