Government ought to rely on unbiased scientific findings when making policy decisions regarding important issues. But unfortunately, many government agencies undermine the scientific process by using it for their own purposes rather than to discover the truth, a reality President Dwight Eisenhower pointed out in his farewell address more than a half-century ago. The situation has only become worse since then, with government funding of tobacco studies providing a vivid example.
Of course we all know tobacco use is harmful, but the important scientific question that remains is how best to help people quit or at least moderate their use and reduce the harm tobacco can do. Unfortunately, federal agencies are shortchanging science about harm reduction in favor of finding ways to force everyone to quit.
According to Dr. Brad Rodu, in 2014 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) doled out $623 million to more than 1,000 university researchers interested in advancing its stated goal of “a world free of tobacco use.” In one such solicitation for researchers willing to fit facts to dogma, NIH set aside $10 million for eight to 10 studies, provided those studies proved useful in helping the government “develop effective ways to limit the spread and promote cessation of smokeless tobacco use.”
Studies show smokeless tobacco is much less harmful than smoking, and hence it should be part of any harm-reduction strategy governments would pursue. That is the very opposite of what the NIH is doing.
This is a big problem because academic research has become highly dependent on government subsidies, which can prove very lucrative to both researchers and the universities that employ them. Government grants such as those from NIH cover the upfront cost of scientific inquiry, such as faculty and graduate student salaries and equipment purchases.
Those grants also cover administrative costs, which the university pockets. For example, a $1 million grant could provide the university itself with $250,000 in revenue for overhead.
Because NIH grants are so valuable to both researchers and the universities for whom they work, violating the dogma purveyed by government agencies is unprofitable. In turn, little to no tobacco harm reduction research is conducted, because there’s little money in exploring that particular line of inquiry.
Searching NIH’s Office of Extramural Research for available grants, I found no funding opportunities between January 1, 2013 and January 1, 2015 involving the words “tobacco harm reduction.” Searching for funding opportunities involving the terms “tobacco cessation,” revealed six grants were available, totaling at least $3.4 million or an average of more than $550,000 per grant. Two of the cessation-related grants had no specified upper limit.
Similarly, government agencies are themselves unduly influenced by the lure of big-money grants. In 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) awarded members of its Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee (TPSAC) with between $53 million and $273 million in grants to fund their respective proposed studies, even though other studies were rated higher by FDA reviewers.
TPSAC member Jonathan Samet, a professor at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, was one such recipient of government funding. FDA officials called its decision to give agency insiders as much as $273 million in funding “purely coincidental,” declining to explain further to Reuters reporters.
Government agencies’ dominance of academic funding perverts the scientific process, creating a situation where our knowledge begins with preapproved doctrine, proceeds to cherry-picked data, and ends with confirmation of the state-sponsored doctrine. By funding those studies that advance preapproved policy goals, government subsidization of academic research encourages researchers to twist the facts to fit the dollar signs.
Given their history of actively inserting policy objectives into the scientific process, government agencies such as FDA and NIH should be removed from the grant-funding business. Congress should rewrite their appropriations accordingly.
Funding studies expected to advance favored preexisting narratives and funding studies from favorite sons is not “science.” It’s political maneuvering at its worst.
Dr. Brad Rodu, the Endowed Chair in Tobacco Harm Reduction Research at the University of Louisville’s James Graham Brown Cancer Center, has conducted extensive research on this topic. His research appears on his blog, Tobacco Truth.
Jesse Hathaway (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a research fellow with the Heartland Institute.