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Tax dollars for drunk birds and musical monkeys

A blistering congressional report issued Tuesday excoriated the federal government for spending tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money on frivolous scientific studies, including why the face of Jesus Christ appears on toast and whether drunk birds slur when they sing.

 “Twenty Questions: Profiles in Federally Funded Science” was issued by Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, and is a throwback of sorts to annual reports lampooning federal spending that were issued by former Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

Flake’s report zeroes in on taxpayer-funded studies conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), which are both federal agencies. Overall, the report said $35 million is being wasted on the studies.

Among the highlights: a $5 million NIH study in Oregon to examine the impact of alcohol on the speech impairment of birds; a $3.5 million NIH study farmed out to Chinese researchers on why some people see Jesus on a piece of toast; a $1 million NIH study also in Georgia that examined what type of music is preferred by monkeys and chimpanzees; and  a $3.9 million joint NIH-NSF study in Maine on what makes goldfish feel sexy.

“Paid for with your tax dollars,” Flake told reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday. “I’ve talked to (NIH) about some of their studies, and they actually came to me a couple of months ago to talk about some of these. I can understand some of them, and sometimes they’ll have an explanation. What we’re trying to do is say, ‘Come to us more often.’ We’re not trying to play ‘gotcha’ here.”

 Flake said his goal is not to immediately eliminate the studies, although he said some should be. “Some of them need to stop because they just shouldn’t be doing them, frankly,” he said. “It puts into question a lot of the legitimate research that we do. But more than anything, I hope it makes these agencies think. We have limited resources. Let’s put them to the best use.”

 The NIH responded with a statement to AMI Newswire that said the agency is only following through on its mission to “seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and apply that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability.”

 The statement also said NIH grants are assessed for scientific merit by a “rigorous” review process that includes non-government scientists and advisory councils. More information is available through the agency’s RePorter database at www.nih.gov, the statement said.

 “Based on this mission, NIH awards grants in support of scientific research projects and research training programs,” the statement said. “Only applications that are favorably recommended may be recommended for funding.”

 The NSF provided AMI Newswire with a similar statement, vowing that all studies are subject to rigorous scrutiny and said only one in five proposals are ultimately approved.  

“The NSF determines which research has the greatest potential and would be the most fruitful investment of taxpayer dollars by applying its Merit Review Process to award proposals,” the statement said. “Through its merit review process, NSF ensures that proposals submitted are reviewed in a fair, competitive and in-depth manner. Each proposal submitted to NSF is reviewed by science and engineering experts well-versed in their particular discipline or field of expertise.”

Flake’s report did investigate the reasons behind the studies. The alcohol-birds study was intended to increase knowledge of how birds’ brains work, while the Jesus-toast study was intended to investigate a human phenomenon known as “face pareidolia.” Meanwhile, the music-apes study was intended to promote primate behavior research, and the goldfish study had its roots in research into brain chemistry and social judgments.

The numbers can be a little misleading. Some of the studies, for example, were conducted as part of a larger grant, while others aren’t required to be publicly disclosed. Flake also said he understood the numbers may seem small compared with the overall $3.7 trillion that the federal government spent in fiscal year 2015.

 But, he said, the millions add up – and eat up valuable funds that could be used for more meaningful scientific research. Flake said NIH and NSF officials should be more consistently open and forthcoming about the reasons behind the silly-sounding studies – such as a $1.1 million NSF study in California on whether cheerleaders are more attractive when viewed individually or as part of a squad.

“Explain why, when we need research done – when we need a vaccine for Ebola or Zika – why are we spending money on cheerleaders?” he said. “Some of them may sound funny, but come explain it. Don’t just throw money away.”

 Flake also used the occasion of the report’s release Tuesday to introduce legislation to increase public knowledge of federal scientific research funding. The Federal Research Transparency and Accountability Act will require the price tags for individual studies to be published, instead of being hidden as part of a larger grant.

 He compared the intended effect to a change made a few years ago by congressional appropriators who began attaching the name of a member of Congress to earmarks – a practice that boosted accountability and cut down on frivolous spending.

 “We saw fewer earmarks, or at least a willingness to justify them,” he said. “So it does help to shine a little light on this.”