In the News
| Mar 14 2019
The National Institutes of Health ponied up $405,000 for a study that found kids are more likely to do chores if they don a cape and pretend to be Batman.
But good luck finding out taxpayers’ contributions to that odd bit of science in the university’s write-up.
Same with the $1.3 million the NIH has spent over the years on a Kentucky university’s research into pigeon gambling, or the $265,000 it paid to another pigeon research project in California that found the birds prefer sunflower seeds to popcorn and peanuts.
Sen. Joni Ernst, in addition to questioning the usefulness of the research projects themselves, said in each case the authors ran afoul of federal law by not disclosing in their writings the full amount of taxpayer support they collected nor how much of their overall budgets came from Uncle Sam.
The Iowa Republican said it’s time to make sure all federal grant projects inform the public how much taxpayer money is being using, and that the agencies that dole out cash follow up, to make sure researchers are complying.
“Taxpayers in Iowa, and across the nation, have a right to know exactly how their hard-earned dollars are being spent,” said Ms. Ernst, who ran for office in 2014 on a promise of making Washington “squeal” over spending cuts.
She’s introduced the COST Act, which would give the White House power to dock grant money from researchers until they comply with the disclosure laws. It would also expand rules that currently apply only to the Health, Labor and Education departments to encompass the entire government.
Republican Sens. Rand Paul and James Lankford have joined her in sponsoring the bill.
They announced their legislation in connection with a new Government Accountability Office report on how the current rules, known as the “Stevens Amendment” for the former senator who first came up with the requirements, work.
GAO said it turns out they aren’t working very well, because the departments don’t bother to police things.
The Labor Department did the best, attempting to monitor some grants, but it couldn’t prove it had a comprehensive effort. The Education Department told GAO it doesn’t bother to monitor, and doubts the law even requires it.
At HHS, some agencies said they feel no obligation, even though the department’s policy clearly says otherwise.
NIH, a part of HHS and the sponsor of much of the pigeon research, said it doesn’t do monitoring, but said it would address any issues brought to its attention.
Anthony Bellotti, president of the White Coat Waste Project, a taxpayer watchdog, said Ms. Ernst should be praised for her new bill.
“If current law was being abided, taxpayers would be shocked to learn how much money the government wastes on boondoggles like putting fish on treadmills, hooking monkeys on cocaine, teaching pigeons to gamble and running mouse fight clubs,” he said.
The Batman study, for example, analyzed “self-distancing,” or taking an outsider’s view of one’s self. The theory was that a child viewing himself as a superhero would help focus on tasks at hand. They concluded that did, in fact, work.
Money from several NIH and National Science Foundation grants was used by the paper’s five authors.
The lead author of that study didn’t respond to an email seeking comment after the GAO report was released Thursday evening, nor did the pigeon-gambling researcher.
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