Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Science and Ebola

An article in the Free Beacon deals with the issue of claims that we would have  a vaccine/cure for ebola except for Republican budget cutting (not true, the President's request for NIH/CDC was lower than the eventual appropriations), and Republican counter charges that there's plenty of money there, if only the NIH wouldn't waste its appropriation on studies like "Why Do Lesbians Get Fat" (that's easy, because men are lookist pigs, women who aren't expecting to be judged by men are, in the aggregate, more apt to allow their other appetite to get the better of them. There, I just saved 3 million bucks or so). In doing so, it gets down into the weeds into some basic issues about how science is funded in the United States:

Ebola v. Obesity: The Politicized NIH
. . .Stein’s piece provides insight into thus-far failed efforts by the NIH to produce a vaccine, and is particularly interesting when he quotes the director of public affairs at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology saying he is worried Francis Collins has “opened up the NIH budget process to politics in a way I truly wish he had not.”
Moreover, Stein’s own defense of the NIH’s budget process is worth taking seriously for the insight it offers into both the progressive view of government and the politicization of theoretically apolitical federal bureaucracies.
Says Stein:
These attacks may produce guffaws. But they gloss over the basic structure of the NIH grant process. For starters, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to predict what the big biomedical need will be five years down the road. NIH prioritizes certain subjects. But it also tries to spread resources to many fields.
Second, it’s scientists, not bureaucrats, who are doling out the money. Every year, experts in specific fields volunteer to be on an NIH study section. They sit in a room, review grant proposals, and score them based on scientific merit. Those scores are sent to NIH, which establishes the pay lines for what gets funded and what doesn’t. Sometimes, it’s the odd-sounding project that’s judged to be meritorious. Sometimes, that project produces the most promising medical advance.
“One of the biggest issues we face in Congress is the idea that federal research agencies should fund only science with a specific practical purpose,” Barry Toiv, vice president for public affairs at the Association of American Universities, said in an email. “That is not how science works. If this had been the practice … the list of lost or delayed technologies and medical advances would be staggering. For example, we’ve reduced deaths from heart disease and stroke by more than 60 percent and transformed HIV/AIDS into a manageable illness in good part through the serendipitous results of unrelated research. … Rather than worrying about what sounds funny or obscure, we need to let the world’s greatest research enterprise do its job.”
So the budgeting process works just fine, thank you very much, because scientists, and not politicians, are in charge. These scientists are noble and impartial stewards of the public good, unlike the hacks in Congress, who are vulnerable to shifting political circumstances and all too accountable to a voting public that doesn’t understand “how science works.” It is too bad that there is, as yet, no Ebola vaccine, but this is not the fault of the sort of ridiculous funding Harrington highlights.
Stein, in effect, mounts a defense of the way peer review funds science. For those not in the loop, in per review funded science, proposals are written to address a particular issue, usually written out in an RFP (request for proposals), which may be rather general, or very specific. A fixed pot of money is generally divided up among the proposals ranked highly by a dual level review process (first, anonymous mail reviews, and then a panel of scientists meet to review both the proposals and the reviews, rank them for funding and hand the list to the agency for a little final fiddling. Thus, ideally, only proposals that meet the objectives of RFP, meet all other requirements for funding, and have their methods approved by a panel of fellow scientists for funding will get funded. Ideally. It isn't perfect, but it is one way to sort through a giant mass of scientific ore for the best gems.

The idea is to encourage many ideas, and allow fellow scientists to choose the best for funding (with the oversight of the agency management).

The major alternative, of course, would be for the agency to determine what it wants studied, and the to find the best group of scientists to address the question. This is done too, of course, but scientists tend to frown on it because it smacks of favoritism and tends to breed dependence (but also, expertise).

Peer-review, as they sometimes say about democracy, is the worst system for spending government money, except possibly for all the others.

Why do silly questions like fat lesbians get funded? Ask a silly question (RFP) and you get silly answer. It might be amusing the see the RFP that resulted in the fat lesbian study.  Be assured, only the most highly ranked fat lesbian proposals got funded. Or at least the ones the panel liked. But they still had to work within the responses to the specific RFP.

Be honest; presumably more lesbians have died of being fat in America than Americans have died of Ebola.  It's not a non-problem, it's just a fairly small problem with an easy, but unacceptable solution: make lesbians eat less and exercise more.

If they want an Ebola vaccine, they should ask for one, and not simply hope that the best group will propose an Ebola vaccine in response to a general RFP. And don't be shocked when only a few groups apply, because working with that stuff could get you killed. It's more fun to find out why lesbians are fat.

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