The Chronicle of Higher Education summarizes today’s bombshell succinctly:
The study … found that public research universities in those states received about 9% more NIH money, on average, than did similar institutions with no Congressional representatives on the subcommittee [overseeing appropriations that the NIH received], other factors being equal. Private colleges got no additional money.
Indeed, Deepak Hegde (doctoral student) and David Mowery (economist) report in Science report that, despite the belief that the NIH peer review system protects it from the politicization of awards, congressional representatives can and do influence the allocation of some NIH funding. They studied congressional appropriations bills and appropriations committee meeting reports covering the 20 fiscal years between 1984 and 2003. To identify potential influence, they “analyzed data on the amount of NIH peer-reviewed grants received by 8310 “extramural” biomedical research institutions for every congressional NIH appropriations bill during the 1984-2003 period.”
We estimated that the distribution of $1.7 billion of the $37.4 billion awarded by the NIH to extramural performers in the years 2002 and 2003 (appropriated during the congressional year 2001-2002) was influenced by representation on the HAC-LHHE subcommittee (House Appropriations Committee-Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee). … We found that an additional HAC-LHHE member increased NIH funding for public universities in the member’s state by 8.8% (P < 0.01) and grants to small businesses by 10.3% (P < 0.01). HAC subcommittee membership had no statistically significant effect (at P < 0.01) on grants to private universities, large firms, or other nonprofit institutions.
They did not find influence down to the award of individual research project grants:
Estimates of the returns to representation on these more finely specified grant types (R01, R03, R41 to 44, and P01) suggest that HAC-LHHE members do not significantly affect allocations within any one of these classes, but that the effects appear in the overall funding amounts received by represented performers. This result is consistent with an avoidance by political representatives of direct interference with peer review of individual proposals, while influencing the institutional allocation of research funds.
… though there was an attempt to level the playing field:
Our estimates indicate that House LHHE representation increases NIH funding for research performers in the lowest two quartiles of grant recipients within any biomedical field by an average of 3.6 (P < 0.02) to 6.4% (P < 0.01). Performers in the top quartile, however, did not receive significantly larger allocations than otherwise comparable but unrepresented performers.
Of course, this leveling the playing field is formally built into the NIH, both with the various special programs for minority-serving institutions, AREA awards, and, more politically (in terms of appropriations levels determining eligibility), IDeA and COBRE awards.
Hegde told The Chronicle “that he had collected no data about the quality of the Congressionally influenced research financed by the NIH. However, he added, the preponderance of support to institutions with little NIH financing did raise questions about the quality of the research.”
Not surprisingly, per The Chronicle, “Senior officials at the NIH flatly disagreed with the paper’s findings.”