There’s a whole lot of drinking going on in the name of government science, and some watchdogs think it’s the American taxpayer who is getting hammered.
Right now the National Institutes of Health is spending $3.2 million to get monkeys to drink alcohol excessively to determine what effect it has long term on their body tissue.
NIH also has handed out $69,459 to the University of Missouri to study whether text messaging college students before they attend pre-football game tailgates will encourage them to drink less and “reduce harmful effects related to alcohol consumption.”
And the government’s premier research arm has doled out money in recent years for research on binge-drinking mice, inebriated gamblers and pilots seeking the sensation of flying drunk — on a simulator of course.
NIH defends such expenditures on the grounds that these research projects help those they fund improve their “potential to develop into a productive, independent research scientist.”
In an email to The Washington Times, the NIH pointed out that the goal of the Missouri text message project wasn’t just to save the lives of coeds but also to empower “promising predoctoral students to obtain individualized, mentored research training from outstanding faculty sponsors while conducting dissertation research in scientific health-related fields relevant to the missions of the participating NIH Institutes and Centers.”
In other words, it’s the sort of stuff that gets scientists excited.
But with 50,000 grants totaling $24 billion each year at taxpayer expense, NIH has some spending watchdogs and lawmakers in Congress wondering whether it has become a drunken spender that has wandered too far astray from its core mission.
“The National Institutes of Health has an outrageously large budget and gives away money with no real consideration of whether the projects being funded are of any value to taxpayers,” said David Williams, president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, a think thank focused on waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer moneys.
For its use of American tax dollars to study inebriated pilots, mice, monkeys and students, the NIH wins this week’s Golden Hammer, a weekly award from The Times aimed at highlighting examples of questionable or wasteful spending.
Congress created the NIH to develop “knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life and reduce illness and disability.” But taxpayer advocates question whether many of its projects today really meet that mission.
“This is an agency that wastes our tax dollars to determine whether cutting the ovaries out of prepubescent rabbits causes them to have heart attacks, if physical activity can alleviate erectile dysfunction in obese men and what’s the best way to reduce tobacco use in Indonesia,” Mr. Williams said, citing some of his favorite examples. “Some of the projects the NIH funds are absolutely embarrassing.”
Alcohol and other vices have long been a favorite of NIH research grants.
Between 2008 and 2010 the NIH granted Yale University and Arizona State University a combined $154,688 to determine if drinking excess amounts of alcohol leads to losing more money while gambling.
To perform the study, researchers plied 21- to 30-year-old volunteers with enough alcohol for them to become legally intoxicated. Researchers then measured how well the twentysomethings performed gambling on video poker machines while drunk compared to when they were sober.
In a report to the NIH, Dr. William R. Corbin, the psychology professor in charge of both the Yale and Arizona State versions of the study, claimed that the study was necessary because “empirical evidence documenting alcohol’s influence on within-session gambling behavior is limited.”
“Empirical evidence about the effects of drinking on gambling decisions may be lacking, but, as anyone who has ever sat next to a drunk guy at a blackjack table can attest, anecdotal evidence isn’t hard to find,” Mr. Williams remarked.
“We don’t need a study to tell Americans that gambling while drunk is a bad idea,” he said. “And the government certainly doesn’t need to make taxpayers pay for such an idiotic study.”
Additionally, American taxpayers spent $835,571 from 2007 through 2010 so an Arizona company could develop a flight simulator intended to replicate the sensation of piloting an aircraft while drunk. Since 2007, federal officials have also spent $2 million to reduce fetal alcohol syndrome — in Russia.
The ongoing project that forces monkeys to drink in excess so that scientists can harvest tissue from the animals’ organs and central nervous system and study it for damage has set taxpayers back $3.2 million to date.
Researchers justify the expensive project, which is being performed by the Oregon Health & Science University, by claiming it will “bridge the gap between rodent and human studies” and allow the “alcohol research community to better understand disease processes associated with alcoholism.”
The same Portland-based university also received $84,908 to breed mice that are genetically susceptible to binge drinking. Experiments included forcing the mice to drink while reducing a certain gene in hopes of getting that mouse to drink less. After the study is performed, the mice are dissected so their brains can be studied and mapped.
• Drew Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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