Not long ago, about 20 years, the largest amount of federal dollars on research was spent by federal funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and National Science Foundation (NSF) as part of their annual budgets. Each agency employed staff scientists to help determine which areas of study were ripe for new advancements or in need of more attention, which funding mechanisms were most appropriate (grants for seasoned investigators or fellowships to entice new scientists to enter a particular field), and which scientists should be invited to review the proposals that came in to fill those needs.
However, over the last two decades, there has been a major shift in how we fund science from line item budgets to “earmarking,” or congressional provisions that direct approved funds to be spent on specific projects and/or take place in designated districts. Federal agencies still have their budgets, but, because the big money is in appropriations, both big and small companies and nonprofits have hired lobbyists. They've also invented a new positions for employees to determine which way the wind is blowing in DC and to work with lobbyists to figure out how to get a piece of the pie. You may remember K Street, a short-lived 2003 HBO series about lobbyists and politicians in DC produced by George Clooney. It starred James Carville and Mary Matalin. Among other things, their job was to chase down and try to direct or earmark funds in the best interests of their clients.
If this sounds shady to you, you’re not alone. You may recall John McCain’s stance during the election when he vowed to eliminate earmarks altogether. Obama, on the other hand proposed reform. In September of 2008 during the presidential debate in Oxford Mississippi, Obama said “We need earmark reform and when I'm president, I will go line by line to make sure that we are not spending money unwisely."
Personally, I favor peer review whenever possible. When the quality of science isn’t reviewed by in-area experts, one can miss the absolute elegance of a seemingly simple idea or become overly enthusiastic about an idea that sounds great to the untrained observer.
For example, it would be great if we could investigate novel methods of treatment for returning soldiers with mild traumatic brain injury (TBI), the hallmark injury of current conflicts. Members of Congress who support advanced rehabilitation services for the war-wounded in their districts would certainly be congratulated for their efforts by their constituents. Unfortunately, blast-wave induced mild TBI may differ in its mechanism of action versus blunt-force mild TBI, which we normally see due to car accidents and falls. Additionally, symptoms associated with mild TBI can also be found in post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), another problem for returning soldiers. Therefore, it is critically important that any program be rigorously evaluated by specialized individuals in these areas to ensure the safety of patients and to maximize the effectiveness of treatment. Setting up shop too soon could be a bad thing.
Some say Obama is already moving toward earmark reform by making sure that less than 2% of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 can be described as an earmark or directed funds. Others say that 8,570 earmarks totaling $7.7 billion does not represent reform.
Proponents of the 2% argue that decisions on how to spend federal funds should be made by lawmakers with close ties to their communities. Perhaps that is partly true. Directed funding has been critically important in spreading the wealth, making sure all of our research dollars don’t end up in just the top 10 research universities, resulting in increased investment in resources across the nation and the positive academic and economic ripple effect that comes from that.
Directed funding has also been important when time is of the essence. For example, funds were sent directly to researchers engaged in anthrax research during the anthrax scare of 2001 much faster than a standardized scientific review process would have allowed. And after the Iraq war started in May of 2003, funds were quickly directed to researchers to improve the protective eyewear worn by US soldiers resulting in a dramatic decrease the percentage of soldiers with combat-related vision loss.
I'm with the President, reform is good, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater...