A Capitol Hill hearing about autism research Tuesday quickly broadened into a larger debate on government spending as the top Democrat said federal investigators’ report that research funding may have been redundant and wasteful was “almost insidious.”
Rep. Gerry Connolly, Virginia Democrat, said the findings could be misused by those who want to cut vitally needed federal research programs.
“What you’re doing is playing into the hands of the people up here, willingly or not, who actually want to cut down on federal resources because ‘all federal spending is bad,’” said Mr. Connolly at a hearing on the federal response to autism by the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on government operations.
Mr. Connolly criticized Congress’ own nonpartisan watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, which reported in November that as much as 84 percent of all federal spending for autism research had the potential to be redundant.
“When you say that, GAO, you risk legitimate scientific research that can risk people’s lives,” Mr. Connolly said. “I accuse the GAO of being irresponsible when you do that.”
The comments prompted the panel’s chairman, Rep. John Mica, Florida Republican, to state that the hearing was for fact-finding only, to evaluate investigators’ claims.
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“I just want the record to clearly reflect this isn’t an attempt to cut funds or do away with the research,” Mr. Mica said. “When an agency makes a statement like that, it gets our attention.”
The federal government’s autism spending has become a flashpoint for the larger spending debates on the Hill because many in the medical community view it as the prototype for how to run federal research in the future. The effort involves many labs and experiments run by various agencies coordinated by a central authority — in this case, the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee.
Advocates say it can lead to a broad spectrum of research from wide and diverse perspectives. But critics say it’s a recipe for wasting money through poor communication and agency overreach, often pointing to autism research done by the Defense Department, an agency with a mission that does not usually include investigating medical conditions and diseases.
GAO auditors reported that between 2008 and 2012, the government spent $1.4 billion funding research into cures and treatments for autism. But the watchdog became concerned that money was being wasted due to a lack of coordination.
Multiple agencies were funding research with the same goal instead of focusing on different approaches, and the autism coordinating committee wasn’t doing enough to track research efforts, the GAO said.
“There was not the kind of coordination that we think is essential to ensure that in this very important area funds are not being wasted in areas that are already being undertaken,” said Marcia Crosse, the GAO director for health care.
But medical officials at the Health and Human Services Department have often disputed the findings, stating that scientific breakthroughs require duplication in research to make sure the same results can be repeated.
“Thinking of that as the problem is just chasing the wrong rabbit down the wrong hole,” said Thomas Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health and the chair of the autism coordinating committee. “In science, that’s precisely what we need. We need more people working on the same problems.”
The GAO found no definitive proof that money was actually being wasted, Ms. Crosse said. However, the agency’s assignment was to examine if there was a lack of coordination in federal efforts.
She pointed to the National Science Foundation, which told the GAO it had no programs funding autism research. Yet investigators found 30 different research programs run by the organization that the autism coordinating committee was likely unaware of.
There is nothing wrong with duplication in research so long as it is intentional and deliberative, Ms. Crosse said.
But Mr. Connolly argued that research is not always so clear-cut, because mistakes and accidents happen, often leading to productive results. He noted Alexander Fleming, who left a petri dish of mold out in his lab by chance and came back to find the discovery that would lead to the medicine penicillin.
“I think if GAO was around at that time, you would have criticized them for having a messy lab,” Mr. Connolly said.