Waste: Some Scientists May Have Taken Millions In Duplicate Funding
    By Hank Campbell | January 30th 2013 01:19 PM | 15 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    When fiscal hawk Sen. Tom Coburn set his sights on waste (funding humanities nonsense) and duplication at the National Science Foundation, there was outrage that a politician might actually look out for how taxpayer money was used.

    Well, scientists were right to object even if they were wrong. Smart people in science know we wasted $72 billion in subsidies for energy companies with the right political connections in the last four years, I would rather have had that money used for basic research, and a Navy destroyer that costs $6 billion each is a head-scratcher, but that doesn't mean we should be funding people to play Everquest and call that science - nor should we have dozens of programs spending billions of dollars convincing people inclined to be doctors that they should instead be scientists instead when the whole thing has begun to look more and more like a pyramid scheme exploiting post-docs.

    Waste or value has some intellectual wiggle room but it is hard to defend the ethics of anyone who got duplicate money for the same project and kept the cash or, worse, set out to get funded for the same project twice. 

    The Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech has found that funding agencies may have awarded millions of dollars to scientists who submitted the same grant request numerous times — and that scientists accepted the duplicate funding. The analysis led by Dr. Harold R. "Skip" Garner of the Medical Informatics Research Group, found that $70 million in funding this past decade - and maybe billions overall - looks inappropriate. 

    If you submit a new proposal right after you just received funding from another agency, one to research ethanol-resistance genes and one to research ethanol-hypersensitivity genes in C. elegans, was that illegal? Well, no, but getting double funding from the army and from the NIH at the same time for a project that seems a lot alike is certainly suspect. Plus, budgets are finite, someone else got denied a million dollars in research funds because another researcher better knew how to exploit the government-controlled science system.

    Garner, Lauren McIver and Michael Waitzkin systematically compared 858,717 funded projects using using text mining software and then they did a manual review of matches. 1,300 applications looked like overlap and their manual analysis showed 167 pairs were very similar. Garner is founder of HelioText, which provides such text analytics services, and helped create the text similarity engine used in the study. They got the summaries from NIH, NSF,DOE, DOD and Susan G. Komen for the Cure publicly-available data.

    What they didn't have access to were the full grant files so all they could match was description similarity. That means, said Garner in his statement, the numbers could be far higher. "It is quite possible that our detection software missed many cases of duplication. If text similarity software misses as many cases of funding duplications as it does plagiarism of scientific papers we've studied, then the extent of duplication could be much larger. It could be as much as 2.5 percent of total research funding, equivalent to $5.1 billion since 1985."

    Eugenie Samuel Reich and Conor L Myhrvold, writing in Nature, used Freedom of Information Act requests to get examples - including the ethanol example I cited above - and it is absolutely worth a read to see the extent of the problem.

    167 researchers out of tens of thousands is not a lot, to scientists, but we live in a modern culture where millions of law-abiding gun owners are going to be penalized because of a few criminals, which many people in academia applaud, and an actual criminal committed suicide due to being prosecuted, which many people in academia expressed alarm about - it's the exact same government in both cases.

    If researchers don't adopt internal accountability and circle the wagons around nonsense, the way they did about Coburn's report on waste and fraud, politicians will take control - and it will be the same sort of political theater, posturing and sound-bite yelling about science funding that we see about everything else.  

    Funding agencies do sometimes catch duplication, but they are bureaucratically archaic - legacies of a Cold War mentality about science agencies that we refuse to fix.  The researchers that were part of the overlapping funding proposals fall back on the idea that they need 'clearer guidelines', which shows that many of the successful people in the government-controlled science industry know how to play the game as well as anyone else in politics.

    To ethical people, the guidelines are obvious.


    >>If researchers don't adopt internal accountability and circle the wagons around nonsense . . .<<
    Why would they do that? There's money to be made.

    For some examples, check out the things reported here:
    They regularly feature silly things under the heading “NCBI ROFL”

    This one is a really novel idea:

    NCBI == U.S. government-funded national resource for molecular biology information.

    Yes, it's funny that weed affects the brain. But do you think it's unimportant to to know the blood plasma level that causes motor impairment, especially since there is movement toward legalization? Don't you think weed deserves to have the same level of scientific scrutiny as alcohol when people may be driving around stoned?

    There's a lot of funny stuff like this in scientific studies, but I would not conclude based on a blog post hat there's no serious underlying science.

    "Don't you think weed deserves to have the same level of scientific scrutiny as alcohol when people may be driving around stoned? "

    No, because studies show that there is no increase in accident rates, as people make an effort to drive more carefully (usually slower) when high, or even to avoid driving. It hasn't been shown to be an issue.

    Right, not many accidents happen sitting in the parking lot of a Jack In The Box.
    The first issue is the long metabolization time, it can show up in tests a month after last use, while the effects last a few hours.Plus, we have tests for impairment, if someone isn't impaired, should they still be arrested? And if we start basing arrests on blood levels, then you have to account for prescription drugs as well.
    Never is a long time.
    @Brian: Yes, I chose that link because of the humor of the blog title.

    Nevertheless, if you read the story you should have noticed the conclusion. >>CONCLUSIONS: Response time slowed down and motor control worsened, both linearly, with increasing THC doses. Consequently, cannabis with high THC concentrations may be a concern for public health and safety if cannabis smokers are unable to titrate to a high feeling corresponding to a desired plasma THC level.”<<

    Did we really need a scientific study, paid for by you and me, to tell us that the more high power weed you smoke, the higher you will get?

    No one wants waste. However, I'd want to know more before I concluded that the funds were truly redundant. A tex similarity algorithm simply counts the numer of common words and assigns similarity scores. I could write two paragraphs with the same set of 300 words and they would mean very different things. Worth looking at? Sure. An automatic indictment of research and researchers? Not so sure.

    Here are the same words (minus ~2) from the last paragraph. Does it mean the same? Yes, I'm stretching it. But if I can create different meaning using a few dozen common words, how much latitude is there in a grant proposal?

    "I'd want waste, and the funds were truly redundant. A text similarity algorithm simply counts 300 common words and assigns similarity scores. However, paragraphs with the same number of words would mean I/they could write an automatic indictment of research and researchers. Not so sure that I want to know more before I concluded very different things. Sure worth looking at the set of two."

    Sure, the folks at Nature did get access to some of the full files and the example about the ethanol, for example, really looks odd. 5 months after he gets money he applies for a disturbingly similar study with another branch of the government - and gets it, for almost the same amount of money.

    The problem is that these bloated bureaucracies can't do the obvious thing, like check for duplicates - but they could make the restrictions a little more clear and make a penalty that if people get duplicate funding they don't get grants any more.
    Sorry if I sort of derailed this discussion, Hank. The purpose of the links I posted above was to demonstrate some of the goofiness we pay for. I didn't link to it but there is a real doozy in the study of the motions of female breasts when running. Seems like that study should have been paid for by bra manufacturers not by taxpayers. Enough. I've made my point.

    I have zero experience with the process of grants writing. I mean the structure of the proposal itself. Once upon a time I worked for an engineering firm that did a lot of business with the U.S. government. The government would send out a request for quotes on a project that they wanted done. Many companies would respond and a short list was issued by the feds. Then the final selection determined the winner. In many cases the competing firms were very close in their experience and personnel. In most of those cases, the winner was the one which produced the best response in the RFQ. (When I said winner, I meant that mucho lucre would accrue.)

    So, how does the grants business work? Does the government request proposals on certain topics, or is it that a researcher sends in a paper first?

    Science grants are a different beast. People write grant proposals and a committee picks the ones they like, within the domain of the government's policy.  The Obama administration slightly changed the rules on hESC federal research funding, for example, but bans SCNT still. Federal research funding bias only seemed to be a complaint when Bush was in power, researchers don't seem to mind much that Obama will not fund some types of biology.
    Thanks for that.

    So, some researcher writes a grant proposal and a committee decides if it is granted. That makes sense given some of the junk I've seen.

    It would seem that all a researcher need do is select a topic that might pass inspection and go for it. Whether the proposal is for a topic needing research isn't necessarily a criteria. Is that correct?

    If so, we have a serious lack of oversight on research dollars spent. And, no wonder you have been hammering away at the wasteful spending while truly needed research goes penniless.

    So, what to do? Send Sen. Coburn a list of the foolishness and see what happens? I think I will do that. He is one of my Senators, after all.

    It would seem that all a researcher need do is select a topic that might pass inspection and go for it.
    That is a problem. You can imagine in such an environment that bold, risky research is penalized - if it fails, career over, but incremental, safe research is successful and instead looks to the government like they are smart in what projects they pick.  As government has taken over more of science funding, safe, incremental and perpetual has become a more common mentality - along with only having people in academia who like government control of what gets researched.

    If I could, I'd talk my wife into moving to OK so Coburn could be my Senator too. I sometimes cringe at the stuff he goes after that I personally like, but he goes after waste everywhere, and we need more of that.
    You'd be welcome here. I'd even buy you a big old Cuban smoke. :)

    I took my own advice and sent the Senator an email with a link to this article. I'd guess the chances that he reads it personally are slim, but one of his assistants might think it would be worthwhile to see what we have to say. We'll see.

    Tom Coburn seems to be a nice guy, and I like what he stands for. He is well liked by others in my neck of the woods too; and it is likely that he will continue to be re-elected if he chooses to continue running for office. I do have some reservations about a few of his positions, but I think his stance on government waste outweighs all of my other objections. A test of his influence will be how many of our other policy makers he may be able to enlist in his fight against waste.

    As a country, we need more shouting and headlines about all of the wasteful spending. Perhaps changes will be made.