Why P.J. O'Rourke doesn't understand science funding.

Yesterday, I was puttering around the office doing some mind-numbing tasks and decided that I would zone out to something on my iPod, which ended up being Wait Wait...don't tell me! There was a question that concerned a research study. The study on auctions showed that if you are able to get a potential customer to hold an object for 30 seconds, in this case a cup, they are likely to bid MORE than the retail value of the object. I believe they said in 4 out of 7 cases the person bid more than the retail value, knowing the retail value. The conclusion was that holding an object for even 30 seconds confers a sense of ownership to that person.

P.J. O'Rourke commented something along the lines of "Please tell me my tax dollars were not used to fund this study."

Which is a funny line, but shows a lack of how science is funded in this country and what is wrong with that system.

I'm going to focus on research funding at the NIH since that is what I know best. There are two major types of research funding, in my opinion, at the NIH - targeted and non-targeted. Targeted funding includes things like the over $2 Billion that was set-aside for "bioterrorism" funding in the years following 9/11. As the linked article shows, this lucrative bolus of money drew talented researchers away from important research areas like tuberculosis, which kills 2 million people each year, to chase shadows of bioterrorism. The other type of research is non-targeted research. The NIH is made up of a number of "Institutes" and "Centers", for example:

  • National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) - Est. 1949
  • National Cancer Institute (NCI) - Est. 1937
  • National Eye Institute (NEI) - Est. 1968
  • National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) - Est. 1970
  • National Center for Research Resources (NCRR) - Est. in 1962

These Institutes and Centers are targeted in that each focuses on a particular disease or organ system; and, within these centers they often have "targeted" research such as "Mechanism of Alcohol-Induced Organ Damage" from the NIAAA. However, here is the important distinction. For the most part, at this level the types of targeting are determined by SCIENTISTS, not by lawmakers. Scientists who are determining what areas are primed for exploration, perhaps due to new types of tools or new insights into a disease.

What difference does it make?

Let me relate two stories to explain.

I once took a grant-writing class from an excellent researcher who happened to be an entomologist. He related this story to us of how in the mid 1980s he had submitted a grant to some US-based agency in Argentina (I believe, it's been almost 20 years since I heard the story...which makes me depressed). It was a small grant that wanted to study invasive plants and their relationship with insects, or some such thing. Well, then the Contra thing happened and the state department decided they wanted to help Argentina, who was also funding the Contras. So, one of the things they decided to do was fund any research projects that were focused in Argentina, to the tune of $2 million that first year. Well, guess how many research projects were submitted at that point? Two. So, this guy got $1 million to study his project which probably had a $50,000 pricetag (average size of NSF basic science project at the time was about $50,000). THAT is targeted research. I can give you another example of the same thing happening to a fellow graduate student, who went into Hiv research at the exact moment that congress first put aside a bazillion dollars for Hiv. He got an R01, which is an Investigator award for a project at $200,000 a year for 5 years. About six months after the funding started I asked how the project was going. He said it was a fundamentally flawed idea and they were using the money for something else. Granted, the something else ended up showing some important information about Hiv in macrophages.

So, that is targeted funding. Some good things come out of it but you end up with a lot of inferior science being funded at a cost to the taxpayers. The other side of the coin.

Recently at UNC there was a scientist who was studying cell death in neurons. Cell death is a normal part of how the nervous system dies, we make too many cells and then some die in a very tightly regulated way. This scientist had developed a niche in this very large field and had managed to snag an NIH grant and then two to study the basic underpinings of this process. The nuts and bolts of how this system works. This project went through numerous NIH study section reviews and was critiqued by a panel of scientists. After doing the research he was able to describe lots of important aspects of how neural cells die AND LO AND BEHOLD...

In a paper published in Nature Cell Biology, Allyson Vaughn and Mohanish Deshmukh have identified a strikingly similar mechanisms used by neurons and cancer cells to evade cell death...Restricting the cell death pathway is critical for a neuron’s long term survival as well as for cancer cell evasion of apoptosis. These results bring into focus the possibility that the multiple mechanisms known to be evolved by neurons to restrict apoptosis could be the same ones adapted by mitotic cells during their progression toward cancer.

By understanding how neurons die, we might also understand how cancer cells AVOID dying. See, cancer cells are regular cells gone bad. When they go bad, they are supposed to die, to go through apoptosis. But, they have figured out a way around it. This research suggests a new way of understanding that process. Good science often has this effect, researching one area leads to breakthroughs or at the very least ideas related to other areas. And, this was good science. It was good science because it was based on ideas from scientists and it was put through the NIH peer-review wringer. When only 10% of projects are being funded, then you know that only the cream of the crop is being funded and performed. When you throw money at a problem because it sounds like a good idea then you start funding some bad ideas and some bad science.

So, back to P.J. O'Rourke. In this case the study was funded by "Ohio State's Jensen-Wallin-Young Fund and by Illinois State's Caterpillar Scholars Fund", so his tax dollars were not used. But, I would argue that this is the type of study represents the science that should be funded. It is based on understanding the basic principles of how something works. By understanding the basic principles we stand a better chance of understanding the larger concepts. For instance, the researchers from Ohio State mention one obvious way in which this research finding could be of immediate benefit to American citizens:

Retailers have been using the try-then-buy tactic for years, said Wolf, who is now an assistant professor of information systems at Illinois State University. For example, car dealers routinely send prospective buyers out on test drives, and pet shop owners encourage people to play with the puppies in the window.

Understanding the attachment this tactic can create could make consumers aware of their own susceptibility, Wolf said.

When testing out new cars, for example, and "going in there knowing that you are going to feel like raising your price, maybe you can be better prepared not to make a hasty purchase that you'll regret later on," he said.

Beyond that, think about how this knowledge can cross-pollinate ideas. If it only takes 30 seconds to start to give people a sense of ownership, how can that be used in schools? Passing out books to kids and asking them to read the back cover? Will they feel a sense of ownership and a desire to read it NOT because they are being asked but just because it is in their hands? And, of course there is politics. Working that booth and want people to take home your literature? See if you can get them to hold it for 30 seconds.



Yes, the NIH is overfunded.

I think science funding should be based on science. Give the NIH a certain $ amount, let them figure out how much each Institute and Center gets and let them hand out the money to well-planned, scientifically rigorous studies.

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.

This is probably a stupid question,

but back in the Seventies I recall a story circulating around (not sure if it was MSM) about a cancer research project centered around the distillation of human urine that supposedly showed great potential, but funding was cut off due to pressure from the American Cancer Society because they didn't like the idea of using pee-pee. Is that an urban legend?

I have no idea.

And, I've erased everything I've written here.
: )

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.

It's a conspiracy! ;)

I found it. They're called "antineoplastons" that Stanislaw Burzynski supposedly discovered in human urine after getting himself a grant back in 1973.

I think an old art school friend of mine told me about this. He was one of those guys you could smell across the room. He lived in his car (something to do with avoiding government surveillance), ate tuna out of the can every day (he's probably dead now from mercury poisoning), and would curl up on the backseat of his car and study the Bhagavad Gita whenever he got pissed off at the world. Which was several times a day, if I remember correctly. Damned good artist, though...

speaking of urine

There is a reason that ancient cultures used urine to tell whether a person was healthy or not. Everything flows downhill.

There is a disease called....lysosomal storage disease. The proteins that were mutated in this disease were discovered by concentrating gallons and gallons of normal and diseased urine and then comparing the proteins present in the two samples. Knowing what proteins were getting flushed led to the discovery of what was causing them to get flushed, which eventually led to treatments.

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.


Ancient cultures knew that?

My brother had a disease that was detected in his urine...but this wasn't what was dertected...but hey.....

Well..whatever...I guess you know what you're talking about on ancient cultures and the health of folks.

The best thinking is independent thinking.

ancient urine


Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.


hmmm...works for me.

The best thinking is independent thinking.

D is for Doctor

Don't whatever me.

That's a urine jar in that ancient dude's hand.

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.

Oh, sorry dude

Hey, sorry, mi amigo. I will "whatever" whoever I want, though...thank you very much.

And, if ya want to "whatever" me...kick ass, my friend.


The best thinking is independent thinking.

The question is,

is that his urine, or did he borrow it from a friend who wasn't addicted to laudanum in order to pass a drug test so he wouldn't get kicked out of the Healer's Guild? :)


Just another.

The best thinking is independent thinking.

Golden Fleece Awards

Back in the day the Golden Fleece Awards were handed out to research projects that "sounded" silly, supposedly as examples of wasteful government spending. The problem was that sounding silly didn't mean that they *were* silly.


There cannot fail to be more kinds of things, as nature grows further disclosed. - Sir Francis Bacon

O'Rourke has become a parody of himself.

His appearance on "Wait" has been reason enough for me to never listen. Not only is he a reactionary thug, he's also an asshole.


“Don't tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I'll tell you what you value.”
― Joe Biden

Assholier than thou

that's always been his role and his schtick :-)

Progressives are the true conservatives.

O'Rourke provided an entree

But, this is really an issue that isn't understood by many. I think there are a lot of Democrats who also want to see money thrown at cancer, Hiv, etc without understanding that it is a bad idea. Cancer and Hiv research are important, don't get me wrong, I just don't like the idea of throwing money at the problem.

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.

O'Rourke is a pain

But he's balanced by the delightful Adam Felber. He's worth a listen.

I bid a Gold plated Obama Coin on the Mercedes Benz!

The study on auctions showed that if you are able to get a potential customer to hold an object for 30 seconds, in this case a cup, they are likely to bid MORE than the retail value of the object. I believe they said in 4 out of 7 cases the person bid more than the retail value, knowing the retail value. The conclusion was that holding an object for even 30 seconds confers a sense of ownership to that person.*Somebody pissing in the Wind, thinking it is rain

Great News! PJ has finally solved The Global Auto despression Sales problem! Simply put it on e-Bay and let clients view these inventory sales lots.


P. J. O'Rourke

P. J. O'Rourke still pays taxes?

50 states, 210 media market, 435 Congressional Districts, 3080 counties, 192,480 precincts