Lobbying sways NIH grants

Nov 10, 2014

Douglas Graham/Roll Call/Getty

By Sara Reardon

Advocates for patients with rare diseases spend millions of dollars lobbying the US Congress each year — and it is money well spent, an economic analysis has found. Between 1998 and 2008, such efforts helped to increase new funding for rare-disease programmes by 3–15% each year at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), according to a report to be published in Management Science(D. Hegde and B. N. Sampat Mgmt Sci. http://doi.org/fzs2vx; 2014).

The effect of this growth on the NIH’s total budget (US$30 billion in fiscal year 2014) is small; targeted grants accounted for just 10–20% of the agency’s annual grant-making during the study period. But the analysis highlights the fine line that the NIH must tread when choosing diseases to prioritize: maintaining the peer-review process by which it awards grants, but not ignoring the wishes of the lawmakers who control its budget.

Congress curbed the power of lobbyists through a 2010 ban on setting aside money in bills for specific projects — known as earmarks. But lobby groups have shifted strategies. They seek to steer funds using ‘soft’ earmarks: language in spending bills that encourages or urges an agency to perform some action, such as funding Alzheimer’s research, rather than setting aside funds for it (see ‘Research rewards’).

When economists Deepak Hegde of New York University and Bhaven Sampat of Columbia University in New York City examined the text of congressional reports on the NIH budget for mentions of 955 rare diseases, they found an average of 84 soft earmarks a year for these conditions. The true impact of lobbying on the NIH budget is likely to be even larger than their estimates, they say, because the study examines just a small slice of the agency’s research portfolio that does not include diseases such as cancer.


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2 comments on “Lobbying sways NIH grants

  • It took me a while to understand why this story is being posted at http://www.richarddawkins.net. I think this is about science funding decisions being skewed to projects that offer short-term gains because politicians are being pressed by lobby groups.

    I understand that this means NIH funding is being spent more frivolously than is, perhaps, advisable if we value getting the best bang for our science buck.

    Galling though that is, we have to see our votes actually counting for something and if that means some tax money is wasted … well … that’s democracy. it’s also a matter of opinion whether money was actually wasted. Even if you’re not afraid of death – this is your one shot. If a short-term solution for your medical problem could be found you would, I feel sure, be totally altruistic. I might not.

    On the other hand it makes me gag to see politicians and PR people wasting both taxpayers money and charitably-given money to live the high life while they dream up new ways to undermine sensible rules like the banning of earmarks.

    The politicians would probably say that if they are to be held to account we have to expect that those who are passionate and organised will tend to be heard. In other words, they would duck their real responsibility. They would do this because they know they always get away with it – and they get away with it because the citizens are not their equals.

    This is why critical thinking in education is so important. If we really think democracy is worthwhile, then we have to work to defend it – including from ourselves.

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  • It used to be a crime to give money to a politician. Now, with the Roberts decision, there is effectively an auction where each politician sells his votes to corporate bidders. Politicians need so much money for reelection, and money spent on reelection, we don’t think of as a bribe.

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