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Tilting at Windmills

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March 13, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

THE BROKEN PIPELINE....Back in the late 90s Bill Clinton spearheaded an effort to double NIH spending on healthcare research. After his first year in office, George Bush put a stop to this, first flattening the NIH budget and then decreasing it. The problem? All that extra Clinton-era funding was in the form of multi-year grants, and when the budget flatlined those grants still had to be funded. That meant no money for anything new. Megan McArdle, channeling medblogger Orac, argues that this demonstrates a problem with the way government works:

There are many reasons to avoid taking the King's shilling if you can. Chief among them is that politicians are extremely fickle taskmasters....This has recently become a problem for healthcare research, thanks to a funding boom and bust, and the government's poor system for fund allocation.

....A steady, slow increase, [Orac] says, would have been better than a doubling followed by a flatline; now the old grants are crowding out new research, and possibly crippling the careers of young researchers who can't get onto a project. This suggests that the public should have a preference for politicians with modest promises, rather than radical new plans. But in the case of things like scientific research, this is emphatically not the case.

Well, sure. Politicians are fickle. But are we under the impression here that if Clinton & Co. had funded only a modest rise in NIH funding that Bush & Co. would have kept it in place? That seems....unlikely. So sure, the problem here may be partly "government," but let's face it: it's much more a problem of "the Bush administration." They've got other priorities, like wars in Iraq and missile defense systems, and medical research that benefits elite universities who don't contribute much money to Republican causes just isn't high on their list. So despite the problems it's created, we're lucky Clinton did as much as he did. If he hadn't, we never would have gotten anything.

Libertarians and conservatives have a well-known critique of government that deserves to be taken seriously. But too often libertarians and conservatives watch one of their own deliberately trash a government program and then use that as a case study of why "government" doesn't work. That, needless to say, deserves to be taken a lot less seriously.

Kevin Drum 12:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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Libertarians and conservatives have a well-known critique of government that deserves to be taken seriously. But too often libertarians and conservatives watch one of their own deliberately trash a government program and then use that as a case study of why "government" doesn't work. That, needless to say, deserves to be taken a lot less seriously. —Kevin Drum

Nothing conservatives or libertarians need be taken seriously.

Posted by: Jeff II on March 13, 2008 at 12:49 PM | PERMALINK

Megan McArdle in particular is someone I don't take very seriously.

Posted by: Randy Paul on March 13, 2008 at 12:50 PM | PERMALINK

Yes, including the words "Bush Administration" in anything good government-related is like inviting Charlie Manson to a discussion of mental health programs.

Posted by: Kenji on March 13, 2008 at 12:51 PM | PERMALINK

The other problem is that nothing she's talking about is in any way unique or particular to government. Resource allocators in every business, public or private, tend to over-invest in a boom, leading to sharp and sometimes painful contractions when the boom dries up--that's what the business cycle is.

Posted by: Sean on March 13, 2008 at 12:52 PM | PERMALINK

Lets see if I understand this, Bill Clinton dramatically increased multi-year grants through the NIH. George Bush came to power and first flat lined and then decreased the NIH's budget. The multi-year grants had to be funded so money wasn't available for anything new.

Now some Yahoo says the fact America isn't funding new basic research is all Bill Clinton's fault.

Why are we supposed to pay attention to this Republican sock puppet?

Assume for a moment Clinton hadn't funded the multi-year projects he funded with multi-year grants. When Bush came to power, given his hatred of anything that smacks of basic science research, I am sure he would have cut those partially completed projects along with squeezing out any funding for new projects. We should be thanking Bill Clinton for as much progress as we have enjoyed during the frat boy's war on science.

You would think that at some point the gentlemen and women of the Republican press would have to point the finger of blame at the guy responsible--George W. Bush.

Posted by: Ron Byers on March 13, 2008 at 12:53 PM | PERMALINK

Libertarians and conservatives have a well-known critique of government that deserves to be taken seriously. But too often libertarians and conservatives watch one of their own deliberately trash a government program and then use that as a case study of why "government" doesn't work. That, needless to say, deserves to be taken a lot less seriously.

This boneless, gelatinous paragraph, stripped of any measurable meaning and a near-parody of MSM claims to "balance"...oh, never mind...fuck it.

Posted by: shortstop on March 13, 2008 at 12:54 PM | PERMALINK

You guys should spend more time on Capital Hill. NIH has too many friends to lose funding. No matter what comes to the Hill in the form of the President's Budget, each of the 28 Institutes gets treated like a separate country and they usually get exactly what they want. The only thing that OMB cuts is the Buildings and Facilities budget and so NIH tries to spend their operations money on B&F (Which is illegal).

By the way, I attended a dedication of the C.W. Bill Young Bio-terrorism research facility at NIH and Congressman Young bragged that it was him and his Republiucan colleages that doubled the NIH budget. Everybody wants to credit.

Posted by: lamonte on March 13, 2008 at 1:00 PM | PERMALINK

Gotta agree with Randy on this one, McArdle's writing oscillates between incoherent and just plain wrong. I've long since given up reading her as a waste of time.

Posted by: DP on March 13, 2008 at 1:02 PM | PERMALINK

McArdle: This suggests that the public should have a preference for politicians with modest promises, rather than radical new plans. But in the case of things like scientific research, this is emphatically not the case.

Well, by implication, the public should prefer a Democrat with modest promises over a Republican with the radical new plan of trashing all research in sight :)

Posted by: Tim Morris on March 13, 2008 at 1:03 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, your overall point. But the last paragraph supposes that libertarians and conservatives still have something to teach us about this -- and there really is nothing. We ALL have a well-known critique of government, even most liberals always have done. What the libertarians and conservatives have is a belief and a prescription that are insupportable on total theoretical, historical, and practical grounds. Meanwhile, government isn't getting smaller in our lifetimes, for several very good reasons, in both theory and practice. The mature solution is to look at the design of non-market institutions so that they do the least amount of damage to personal freedom. This lead has been taken by sociologists studying common-pool resource institutions, found worldwide. They are 10 or 20 years ahead of the economists. It turns out that there is a fairly small set of criteria and functions that make them work: well-focused, low overhead, easily-understood regulations, inclusive, no free-riders, small penalties, transparent information, revisability and sunsetability, etc. etc. Libertarians or conservatives are living in a fantasy, and it is well past time to suppose they have anything interesting or useful to say about the democratic mixed-capitalist system.

Posted by: Lee A. Arnold on March 13, 2008 at 1:05 PM | PERMALINK

Libertarians and conservatives have a well-known critique of government that deserves to be taken seriously.

Uh...

Not playing with a full deck today, Kevin?

Posted by: Swan on March 13, 2008 at 1:08 PM | PERMALINK

Libertarians and conservatives have a well-known critique of government that deserves to be taken seriously. Kevin Drum.

Why? Except for public consumption conservatives don't take the small government critique seriously and I have never met a libertarian who had a firm grasp on reality.

Posted by: Ron Byers on March 13, 2008 at 1:14 PM | PERMALINK

They've got other priorities, like wars in Iraq and missile defense systems, and medical research that benefits elite universities who don't contribute much money to Republican causes just isn't high on their list.

Lest we forget the forsaking of public health in the interest of crackpot ideas about sexuality & education.

Posted by: junebug on March 13, 2008 at 1:15 PM | PERMALINK

There's a well-known critique that, like any other organization, Government doesn't work well when it's run by morons that hate it.

Next up: Mechanics who hate cars.

Posted by: thersites on March 13, 2008 at 1:22 PM | PERMALINK

Sounds like Megan McArdle is spending too much time around academics outside the Beltway.

Elected conservatives and libertarians had little problem ramping Iraq war spending up into the stratosphere on a very short timetable.

We can re-fund new projects at NIH with the peace dividend that will result from ending the Iraq War.

From http://meganmcardle.theatlantic.com/bio.php

About Megan McArdle

Megan McArdle was born and raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and yes, she does enjoy her lattes, as well as the occasional extra dry skim milk cappuccino.

-- enough said.

Posted by: pj in jesusland on March 13, 2008 at 1:28 PM | PERMALINK

I think Kevin needs to take his punditometer in for a tune-up.

Inconsistent management, whether of nations, corporations, or children, is going to create problems. Nothing liberal or conservative about that observation... Yeah, we hear it a lot more from inside Liberteria or the Conservatorium -- hey, any criticism of government is legal tender in those circles -- but is there a particle of evidence that liberals are less sensitive to genuine instances of government mismanagement?

Posted by: idlemind on March 13, 2008 at 1:45 PM | PERMALINK

McArdle misses the real point of Orac's original post (I know him as a fellow Skeptic's Circle contributor) that research universities are a bunch of cheapskates with salaries and lab funds for young researchers.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on March 13, 2008 at 1:49 PM | PERMALINK

Speaking as a formerly-NIH-funded researcher, I would vastly prefer flat funding or a gradual increase over the ridiculous crunch we are currently experiencing. It's actually worse than what Kevin says, because there is a tradition of funding labs which have been previously successful, so it is now extremely difficult for new labs to obtain funding.

Many of us began our training early in the "doubling" period and were optimistic of our long-term prospects, only to find them demolished by the current administration.

lamonte, I don't know what the hell you're talking about, perhaps you're referring to spending at the NIH campuses. For those of us whose livelihood's depend on NIH grants, I can verify that "NIH has too many friends to lose funding" is flat wrong. Go look up the numbers before you spout that nonsense.

Posted by: Crusty Dem on March 13, 2008 at 1:49 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, I have an urgent message for you from NRCC headquarters:

link

Posted by: Swan on March 13, 2008 at 1:54 PM | PERMALINK

But too often libertarians and conservatives watch one of their own deliberately trash a government program and then use that as a case study of why "government" doesn't work.

You're having an argument with a ventriloquist dummy.

Dummy: "Goverment doesn't work!"

Drummy: "It does too!"

Dummy: "I'm a stupid head!"

Drummy: "I claim teh victory."

McCardle's point was that funding fluctuates based on who controls the budget, and that because who controls the budget changes up frequently in a democracy by design the fluctuations are inherent. I see nothing in your post to refute that argument.

The only way those the fluctuations get ironed out is if somebody who has infinite wisdom regarding funding priorities gets to be dictator. You think you know what's best. So does Bush. This being a democracy, neither of you gets to impose your will upon the other indefinitely. McCardle's right: the fluctuations are inherent.

Posted by: Creamy Hussein Goodness on March 13, 2008 at 2:14 PM | PERMALINK

is there a particle of evidence that liberals are less sensitive to genuine instances of government mismanagement?

The libertarian critique is that liberals set up government programs as monopolistic systems, and that monopolies are inherently inefficient. It's not that you are blind to poor work performed by underlings, it's that you're poor architects. The problem is at the top.

Posted by: Creamy Hussein Goodness on March 13, 2008 at 2:26 PM | PERMALINK

Crusty Dem - As a former employee at HHS I saw the budgets that were submitted and those that got approved over the past few years. I can tell that OMB made every department cut their budgets by by 2% overall but the B&F budget was more than compensated by the Institutes with their excess funding for operations. It may not have trickled down to the individual researchers but NIH was flush with cash. I spent most of my time making sure they spent it on what they were supposed to spend it on because they were relentless in their attempts to spend operations money on Building's and Facilities.

Posted by: lamonte on March 13, 2008 at 2:32 PM | PERMALINK

McCardle's point was that funding fluctuates based on who controls the budget, and that because who controls the budget changes up frequently in a democracy by design the fluctuations are inherent.
Posted by: Creamy Hussein Goodness

Thanks for your Cliffs Notes version of Dummies Guide to Why Budgets Fluctuate in Democracies. The only problem with your snark is that we're not talking about bullshit pork-barrel ag subsidies or tax breaks for oil companies (which, come to think of it, are probably the most sacrosanct part of any federal budget after defense appropriations). We're talking about cutting the funding for important medical research. Not really the same now, are they? Once you are honest and acknowledge this, you will see McArdle's article for the piece of crap that it is.

Posted by: Jeff II on March 13, 2008 at 2:42 PM | PERMALINK

"Well, sure. Politicians are fickle"

And, as said in #4 comment, so are corporations. So is the business cycle. Longer-term, basic research is often without direct or expeditious avenues to ROI. Public agencies would probably do this better than corporations, who might not do it at all.

"because who controls the budget changes up frequently in a democracy by design the fluctuations are inherent."

I'm sure a project could be (has been) undertaken to track funding trends in private vs. public research, specific to some given field. I'm sure there is an answer to a basically empirical question. Seems ideologues would have strong opinions without such empirical data.

Posted by: luci on March 13, 2008 at 2:55 PM | PERMALINK

bullshit pork-barrel ag subsidies

funding for important medical research

Not really the same now, are they?

Depends on what sense you're talking about. In the sense that they both fluctuate -- inherently -- they are the same.

In the sense that funding basic scientific research is vastly more important than funding corporate welfare for Big Agriculture, they are worlds apart.

Don't assume that someone making libertarian arguments supports the Bush agenda. The modern Republican party is statist and authoritarian. I can't stand 'em.

Posted by: Creamy Hussein Goodness on March 13, 2008 at 3:02 PM | PERMALINK

Of the people now alive in the U.S., about sixty million will die of cancer. Several more will have cancer at some point in their lives but will survive it. We might compare these numbers with the number who will die in foreign wars or due to terrorist activity. After doing this comparison, we might compare U.S. expenditures on research with our overall security/defense budget, and then compare these numbers with the comparable European numbers.

Posted by: Bob G on March 13, 2008 at 4:21 PM | PERMALINK

Y'know, if Obama really is a secret Muslim that'll put an end to pork barrel spending once and for all, won't it?

Posted by: thersites the blackguard on March 13, 2008 at 4:22 PM | PERMALINK

lamonte - it sounds like your talking about the NIH institutes, right? Because grant funding for researchers at other institutes (Harvard, Yale, U Wisc, etc) has not increased since 2003 and when adjusted for inflation is really in the crapper. The success rates for new grants is down ~70% since 2002. If you're a new PI, that's unbelievably bad news.

Posted by: Crusty Dem on March 13, 2008 at 4:43 PM | PERMALINK

Good old Megan McArdle- "The fact that government continued to provide funding for those multi-year commitments, in spite of the fact that the Bush administration would have provided none, proves that government can't be trusted".

Why does Kevin keep clicking that link? Are there pictures of boobs there, or something? It sure ain't the quality of the discourse.

Posted by: serial catowner on March 13, 2008 at 5:03 PM | PERMALINK

this: "For those of us whose livelihood's depend on NIH grants, I can verify that "NIH has too many friends to lose funding" is flat wrong. Go look up the numbers before you spout that nonsense."

Posted by: Crusty Dem on March 13, 2008 at 1:49 PM | PERMALINK

"For those of us whose livelihood's depend on NIH grants"- is the perfect sentiment that typifies the majority of the posters', on this thread, views.

Who is attaching your mouth so firmly to the teat of Government? Then, complain that the udder is dry? Are you a child? Have you no readily marketable skills? Who owes you a sinecure for the decisions you've made?

My friend, come out of the Cave, I assure you, the shadows are just that, not real.

Posted by: M E Hoffer on March 13, 2008 at 6:19 PM | PERMALINK

As a result of the flatlining of NIH budget it now takes a "score" inside of the top 10% to have an application funded. At that funding level success is either predetermined or stochastic. There is no objective way to distinguish between proposals in the top one-fourth to one-third of applications. Who "wins" becomes dependent on who reviews the work and whether the reviewers "like" it. It also means that new investigators have little chance and that established investigators are likely to have their careers interrupted, or worse.

Posted by: redterror on March 13, 2008 at 6:24 PM | PERMALINK

M.E. Hoffer:

Just whom do you think does the basic research that our "scientific enterprise" depends on? Who is looking for the new explanations or treatments for various and sundry diseases, including Parkinson's, cancer of all types, diabetes, AIDS? It's "those of us whose livelihood depends on NIH grants." Of course, we could go to work in the vaunted "private sector" and develop a competitor for Viagra or Cialis or Levitra if that is what you prefer. Actually, no, most of us couldn't. And most of us wouldn't.

Posted by: redterror on March 13, 2008 at 6:33 PM | PERMALINK

redterror,

why should we believe that the NIH is the only potential source of funding for Research?

have you any idea the number of $$ flowing into Biotech R&D from the VC community?

and you do remember how the funds were raised to incentivize the finding of a cure for Polio, yes?

Posted by: M E Hoffer on March 13, 2008 at 6:45 PM | PERMALINK

M.E. Hoffer:

Sigh. Yes, I am indeed aware of other sources of funding, and I have obtaind some of it for a project that was of interest to the pharmaceutical industry only because of our previous 20 years of basic research support, provided primarily by the National Science Foundation. But venture capital? Are you serious? Basic research could work that way, but it usually doesn't, and for good reason. A VC firm is interested in making money, and more power to them. However, breakthroughs come from the strangest places, and the only way to not miss them is to broadly fund biomedical research. Of course, the VC firms then cherry pick the most promising leads, and that is a good thing. Probably, even if it means that we pay several times for the result. But they do not and cannot fund the work that identifies those leads. That's what NIH-funded researchers and their students and postdocs do. These researchers also teach and prepare each new generation of physicians and other health care providers. Do you suppose VC and biotech firms can do that, too? And, by the way, not all important research is "biotech" whatever that means at any given moment. Right now "biofuels" seem to be an "in" thing. Get back to me when we are fueling our passenger jets with biofuels.

Posted by: redterror on March 13, 2008 at 7:11 PM | PERMALINK

M E Hoffer: and you do remember how the funds were raised to incentivize the finding of a cure for Polio, yes?

And do you remember where Dr. Salk developed the expertise in virology and immunology that allowed him to develop the polio vaccine, yes? Ok, I'll refresh your memory - during his U.S. Government funded fellowship.

have you any idea the number of $$ flowing into Biotech R&D from the VC community?

And you do remember why polio vaccine could be used worldwide, yes? Because it was inexpensive - as Dr. Salk adamantly refused to patent it. Perhaps VC's would have let him do that, and perhaps pigs can fly.

Posted by: alex on March 13, 2008 at 9:53 PM | PERMALINK

There's a simple (partial) solution that hasn't been mentioned here: switching NIH accounting to NSF's. NSF budgets all years of a multi-year grant in the award year's budget. Next year NSF will fund however many multi-year grants they have funds for next year. NIH only charges the first year's costs to this year's budget, so with flat funding, they start each year with 2/3 to 4/5 of their budget already committed to out years of ongoing grants, and the remaining 1/3 - 1/5 has to cover the first year of new grants as well as any declines in congressional funding. This accentuation of year to year variations is a major reason why NIH folks complain much more than NSF folk, even though NSF has so much less RO1-type (investigator-driven research) funding and much lower funding rates for proposals with excellent scores. [Grant renewals are a problem in both systems, virtually tying up new funds for continuation/renewal of grants with proven productive track records. Currently, in many panels (fields), one must almost do the entire project before funding to get enough pilot data to get a new grant funded.]

As for the VC funding or "get a real job" opinions, I have a slightly different but complementary perspective to redterror's risk-based version. VC and private industry only work for research where one can control who receives the benefits, and thus directly charge for the benefit, such as pharmaceuticals. If I were to discover a prevention for pancreatic cancer or a solution for global warming (neither are my field), I would not have a product that I could direct the benefits to only those that paid me. What NIH calls "basic research" and much of what NSF funds falls into that broad "societal good" category.

ps: redterror: Virgin just flew a jet using biofuels, but mostly as a pr stunt.

Posted by: tomp on March 13, 2008 at 10:19 PM | PERMALINK

Tomp,

You are certainly right about NSF doing a much better job at actually administering its budget than NIH. NSF is also much easier to deal with. This may have changed, but the initial NIH electronic submission portal would not work with a Mac, which is more than absurd, especially since for historical reasons biologists tend to use Macs more than other groups. Still, in my recent attempts there, the funding rate has been less than 10%, for all proposals of all kinds. Not much room at the inn for new proposals from new investigators.

Yes, I knew about Sir Richard Branson's stunt with the biofueled jet, which flew once (across the Channel?) and carried only its crew. Sir Richard is quite the pioneer. Maybe he can fund all of our basic research since Bill Gates seems so hooked on finding a solution to malaria and such.

Posted by: redterror on March 13, 2008 at 10:43 PM | PERMALINK

First of all, I am so glad to see some discussion about science funding in political circles. Looking to the future of our country, science and scientific education are some of the most important subjects, but rarely you see it discussed in a debate or in a public forum. Second, I agree mostly with the opinions of Redterror and tomp. I would argue that the crunch is especially affecting the generation of researchers in 40s-50s, who are renewing projects for a second or third time. This is having an impact to people doing their post-docs and graduate students, who see their mentors struggling for funding at the time they should be in the peak of their careers. This young people see that and run away from science, compromising the future of science in the country. The consequences of this situation are not felt right now, because just now the industry is reaping the benefits of the breakthroughs of late 90s, early 2000 (Human genome project and so on). But the future does not look bright at all.

Posted by: on March 13, 2008 at 10:59 PM | PERMALINK

"Looking to the future of our country, science and scientific education are some of the most important subjects, but rarely you see it discussed in a debate or in a public forum."

This, simply, is where, in general, I'm coming from. These important considerations need to be removed, moreso, from the 'Cave' of bureaucratic fiefs, and be given wider circulation.

the Komen Foundation proves another viable way of procuring funding for Research--tying it to product purchases.

I'm sure, with a lttle nudging, one's 'cash-back' CC could have its rebates funnelled to the research cause of their choice, the same with 'unused' freqent flyer miles, et al..

To think that 'Government' has the only answer is to believe something that been has been so..

Posted by: M E Hoffer on March 14, 2008 at 5:28 AM | PERMALINK

"that been has been so.."

nice syntax, sorry

To think that 'Government' has the only answer is to believe something that has never been so..

Posted by: M E Hoffer on March 14, 2008 at 7:47 AM | PERMALINK

Shorter M.E. Hoffer, "I got nothing."

Rather than repeating a catechism from the Church of Ryandology, how about some facts to back up your assertion?


Wait, that's right, there are none. Stick to your religious beliefs and leave reality to the grown-ups.

Posted by: Dr. Morpheus on March 14, 2008 at 11:01 AM | PERMALINK

Posted by: Dr. Morpheus on March 14, 2008 at 11:01 AM

beyond your bombast, WTF are you talking about?

Posted by: M E Hoffer on March 14, 2008 at 12:53 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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