Francis-CollinsBoth the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health are pulling out all the stops to capitalize on the Ebola scare in the United States by wringing extra funding out of a Congress that is too panicked to do anything but throw money at the problem. Yesterday, my colleague, Aaron Gardner highlighted a television ad produced by Democrats which blames the Ebola death in Dallas on Republicans. This morning Erick showed how the GOP has funded CDC at higher levels than those requested by the administration.

The CDC has been the most blatant about turning death and fear into cold hard cash, but the NIH is now joining this budgetary equivalent of the Oklahoma Land Rush.

As the federal government frantically works to combat the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and as it responds to a second diagnosis of the disease at home, one of the country’s top health officials says a vaccine likely would have already been discovered were it not for budget cuts.

Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, said that a decade of stagnant spending has “slowed down” research on all items, including vaccinations for infectious diseases. As a result, he said, the international community has been left playing catch-up on a potentially avoidable humanitarian catastrophe.

“NIH has been working on Ebola vaccines since 2001. It’s not like we suddenly woke up and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we should have something ready here,'” Collins told The Huffington Post on Friday. “Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this that would’ve gone through clinical trials and would have been ready.”

There is a thin line between hyperbole and absolute balderdash and Dr. Collins crosses it. In the puff piece coordinated between NIH and Huffington Post, this helpful chart is presented:

nih budget

The article correctly notes that compared to the high water mark of 2004, the NIH budget has only increased by $1.28 billion, that’s billion with a “b”. In actual purchasing power this is a cut in Washington terms. However, don’t be fooled, the technical, budgetary term for $29.31 billion is “crap load of money.”

The real question is what did the NIH do to combat Ebola over that same time horizon. Here we turn to unpublished data on NIH’s expenditures for research on an Ebola vaccine.ebola vax

Compare and contrast the Ebola vaccine budget with the NIH budget.

What is obvious is a couple of things. First and foremost, even during times of high funding, the Ebola vaccine received little attention. The budget estimated for Fiscal Year 2014 would be over $13 million in 2003. So the claim that more money would have solved the Ebola vaccine problem is, to be kind and charitable, bogus. (As a side note, the surge in spending in various years reflects how contracts and grants are administered, not a sudden interest in Ebola.) The budget is so small that one wonders why they even bothered.

Secondly, NIH does not have a money problem. To the contrary, NIH has just the opposite problems. Erick pointed out how NIH was studying why lesbians tend to be fat. But that isn’t an anomaly. For instance:

  • Item: The National Institutes of Health has spent millions of dollars over the past decade to fund the construction of an HIV-prevention website that, among other sexually explicit features, includes a graphic image of homosexual sex and a Space Invaders-style interactive game that uses a penis-shaped blaster to shoot down gay epithets.
  • Item: The federal government is spending $423,500 to find out why men don’t like to wear condoms, a project government watchdogs say is a nearly-half-a-million-dollar waste of taxpayer money.

There are literally thousands more of such studies out there. All funded by the NIH. The gay porn website, fat lesbian research and condom research if applied to Ebola would have increased the research funding by 10%.

The problem isn’t that there is a lot of rather bizarre research going on, the problem is that it is institutionalized. The NIH is organized into Institutes and Centers. One of the most interesting ones is the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). If it sounds like a place where you would find magic crystals, aroma therapy, and a focus on office feng shui you wouldn’t be far off:

The following are just a few of the studies the NIH funded in 2011 where information is currently publicly available:

  • Massage in Rabbits.  – $386,000 – Ohio State University.   The official title of the study is “Massage Therapy in Eccentric Exercise Induced Muscle Weakness and Inflammation.”  The principal investigator confirmed with me that it is as it read – a study applying massage to rabbits to try to figure out what is the best massage duration.
  • The Role of Breathing in Meditation. $453,000 – University of California San Francisco.  Yes, nearly half a million dollars of taxpayers money to tell us that breathing is important in meditation.  I predict breathing is important in most things…
  • Losing weight through meditation.  $1,158,000  – University of California San Francisco.  The study, entitled “Metabolic and Immunologic Effects of Meditation” seeks to find out if one meditates, will they shed pounds.  My guess is if you meditate near your fridge, you probably won’t.  Add this to the $480,000 to study “Yoga for Therapy of the Metabolic Syndrome” University of California San Francisco, and we can see a new Meditate and Yoga Your Way to Slim video soon.
  • Dismantling Mindfulness: Contributions of Attention vs. Acceptance.   $134,000 to Brown University for something that sounds pretty darn flaky.
  • Structural, Functional, and Behavioral Effects of Meditation – Mass. General Hospital – $438,265.  This study take 90 stressed out people and tries to figure out how meditation makes them relax.
  • Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Cognitive Function in Stress and Aging – Washington University – $200,640.
  • Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction as and Adjunctive Treatment for Psoriasis – – $533,074 – University of Rochester.
  • Mechanisms of Meditation – $320,00 – Emory University.

If you want to see the opportunity cost of funding witchcraft and folk healing, these are the NCCAM budgets over the same time period as the Ebola vaccine data:

  • FY 2013: $123.813 million
  • FY 2013: $120.7 million
  • FY 2012: $128.0 million
  • FY 2011: $127.7 million
  • FY 2010: $128.8 million
  • FY 2009: $125.5 million
  • FY 2008: $121.5 million
  • FY 2007: $121.6 million
  • FY 2006: $122.7 million
  • FY 2005: $123.1 million
  • FY 2004: $117.7 million
  • FY 2003: $114.1 million

In any given year, the budget of this organization was about 10 times what was being sent to research labs to develop an Ebola vaccine.

The NIH has a problem with managing research grants and it has a problem with priorities. Both of those problems are aggravated by the fact that it is fairly choking on money and is part of an Iron Triangle of Congressional appropriators, the NIH, and major research universities which engage in Olympic quality backscratching and log rolling.

Collins blaming a lack of money is just poltroonery and he needs to be called to account for this egregious claim.