Politics and Federal Research: The Nexus

Anyone who has ever worked for a federal government research agency knows that politics can interfere with unbiased research. It’s not a sound practice; many agencies resist. It happens nonetheless. In my experience as a journalist, it happens often at the Department of Energy.

When I worked for the National Institutes of Health in the 1970s, we prided ourselves on the pristine quality of our peer review process. Congress gave us money to fund (and do) biomedical research. We doled out the dollars based on a rigorous and, we hoped, unbiased process of assessing merit within the constraints of the budget. It was the gold standard for peer review.

Then, toward the mid-1970s, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), a power on the Senate Appropriations Committee, working with a young and bright aid to Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.) named Gerry Cassidy, invented a legislative way to subvert NIH’s peer review process. Their complaint was that NIH’s rigorous review tended to send a lot of money to elite research institutions, such as Harvard, MIT, Hopkins, and the like. Not enough was going to schools of lesser image, many of whom thought they were being slighted because English ivy didn’t grow up the walls of their laboratories.

In truth, their proposals didn’t stack up well against their competitors. But they had political muscle, as they often came from states and institutions not well represented in NIH research grants but well represented in the halls of Congress.

So the solons started specifying in appropriations bills that NIH had to award grants in certain ways to certain institutions. The practice quickly won the name “earmarking,” and Cassidy went on to a fabulous lobbying career as the major domo of earmarks, with his firm Cassidy & Associates. Congress now has formally eschewed earmarks, but that’s a joke. Earmarks continue.

A new paper from the libertarian-oriented Cato Institute in Washington examines just how federal research dollars routinely get steered to pre-determined outcomes favoring political interests in Congress, in the administration, or both. It involves a complex series of processes designed to guide the flow of federal dollars to pre-determined outcomes. The report – “Is the Government Buying Science or Support? A Framework Analysis of Federal Funding-induced Biases” – is written by David Wojick, an epicure of epistemology (how do we know what we know and how do we know it is valid) and Patrick Michaels, a notable climate scientist. The paper sets out to “provide a framework for doing research on the problem of bias in science, especially bias induced by Federal funding of research. In recent years the issue of bias in science has come under increasing scrutiny, including within the scientific community.”

The article notes that much of the analysis to date research bias focusses on private-sector funded work. Think Koch brothers and climate science. But “relatively little attention has been given to the potential role of Federal funding in fostering bias.” Climate skeptics assert that federal research dollars flow predominantly to research supporting the global warming agenda. The Cato paper states, “The research question is clear: does biased funding skew research in a preferred direction, one that supports an agency mission, policy or paradigm?

The answer is yes. The Cato paper lays out how the process induces the bias that policy makers seek in order to further their political goals. This involves Congress, forces internal and external to the executive branch, agency actions (such as how requests for proposals are structured), public interest groups (Cato qualifies here), the structure of the peer review process, journalism and the media.

David Wojick

David Wojick

Predictably (correctly, in my view) the review looks most closely at funding for federal climate research, where skeptics have largely been shut out of a research bonanza. The Cato article states, “In the climate change debate there have been allegations of bias at each of the stages described above. Taken together this suggests the possibility that just such a large scale amplifying cascade has occurred or is occurring. Systematic research is needed to determine if this is actually the case.”

This is a paper well worth reading, regardless of one’s position or positions on the climate debate. It touches a broader and more important issue about how to evaluate the veracity of federal (and private sector) research. Whom do we trust and why?

[Full disclosure. I’ve known David Wojick for 25 years and consider him a good friend. He’s scary smart, one of the brightest people I’ve ever worked with. He is a civil engineer with a doctorate in the philosophy of science and mathematical logic. Michaels, a prominent global warming critic, has a doctorate in climate science. I interviewed him a couple of times in the 1980s and don’t know him at all well. He directs Cato’s Center for the Study of Science.]