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Politics Can Influence Who Receives Coveted NIH Research Grants

Despite the general perception that biomedical research funding decisions are apolitical, Congressional members steer billions of dollars in research money from the National Institute of Health (NIH) to researchers and institutions in their home states, according to a University of California, Berkeley study.

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Despite the general perception that biomedical research funding decisions are apolitical, Congressional members steer billions of dollars in research money from the National Institute of Health (NIH) to researchers and institutions in their home states, according to a University of California, Berkeley study.
 
Doctoral student Deepak Hegde and David Mowery, the William A. & Betty H. Hasler Professor of New Enterprise Development at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, revealed the surprising reach of House and Senate appropriations committee members.
 
In the study, “Politics and Funding in the US Public Biomedical R&D System,” published in Science magazine on December 19, 2008, Hegde and Mowery studied NIH grants between 1981 and 2002 and found three to seven percent of the overall allocations are affected by political influence. The researchers examined NIH grants awarded to public universities and found in states with lawmakers on the House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee responsible for NIH appropriations, universities received an average of nine percent more money than similar universities in states with no representative on the committee.
 
The study estimates that during 2001-2002 alone, committee members influenced the allocation of $ 1.7 billion out of a $37 billion dollar budget, directing about four percent of NIH grants to their own constituencies. Hegde suggests that “earmarks” specifying the location of research could have been subtly avoided by merely encouraging the NIH to spend grant money on particular research fields and projects. The academic scientists who serve as NIH peer reviewers "do not have much leeway in shaping the NIH's broad spending priorities and legislators use their power in setting research field-level priorities to cleverly work around the peer process to achieve their desired outcomes," says Hegde.
 
"The congressional 'power of the purse' is mandated by the Constitution," the study notes. "Nevertheless, the exercise of such influence clearly mediates the effects of rigorous peer review."
 
The NIH shepherds the largest source of funding for academic research in the United States. It is known for its independent peer review of scientific grant applications. According to the NIH website, the NIH “promotes the highest level of public accountability … and invests over $28 billion annual in medical research for the American people.” Furthermore, the NIH says more than 80 percent of funding is awarded to more than 325,000 researchers at over 3,000 academic and research institutions in every state and globally.