Report questions taxpayer-funding to study why Jesus appears on toast, why drunk birds slur, why is yawning contagious, if cheerleaders are more attractive in a squad, and more
Posted on May 10 2016
Washington, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) today released Twenty Questions: Government Studies That Will Leave you Scratching Your Head, an oversight report highlighting 20 hard-to-justify, taxpayer-funded studies that diverted more than $35 million that could have been better spent researching treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and viral infections such as Zika and Ebola. Along with the report, Flake also introduced the Federal Research Transparency and Accountability Act, a bill to ensure federal research dollars are better directed towards supporting transformative science while rooting out unnecessary spending on lower priority projects.
“We ought to reevaluate a system that spends federal funds looking for America’s next top model over a cure for cancer. When federal agencies don’t spend our limited research dollars wisely, they’re not just wasting money, they’re missing opportunities, and we can’t afford either,” said Flake. “It’s time that Washington set clear goals for federally-funded research, improved transparency to ensure tax dollars are being prioritized to meet to those goals, and reduced wasteful and duplicative spending on lesser priorities.”
The full report can be downloaded here.
During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, the Director of the National Institutes of Health stated in an interview that “if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this…” Following that claim, Flake, who serves as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, began to investigate how the agency was spending its $32 billion annual budget. That search uncovered that NIH had spent limited federal research dollars to study:
- Why some people see Jesus’ face on toast ($3.5 million*)
- Do drunk birds slur when they sing? ($5 million*)
- Does cocaine make honey bees dance? ($243,000*)
- What type of music do monkeys and chimpanzees prefer to listen to? ($1 million*)
- Why is yawning contagious? ($1 million*)
Within the budgets of the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense, Flake found more questionable studies that sought to answer questions such as:
- Where does it hurt most to be stung by a bee? ($1 million*)
- Why does walking with coffee cause it to spill? ($172,000*)
- Are cheerleaders more attractive in a squad? ($1.1 million*).
- Who will be America’s next top model? ($2.9 million*)
- What makes goldfish feel sexy? ($3.9 million*)
* Specific dollar amounts expended to support each study were not made publicly available for the projects profiled in this report. Most were conducted as parts of more extensive research funded with government grants or financial support. The costs provided, therefore, represent the total amount of the grant or grants from which the study was supported and not the precise amount spent on the individual studies. This is not intended to imply or suggest other research supported by these grants was wasteful, unnecessary or without merit. The studies included were supported with federal assistance awarded during the last decade. Some, but not all, are still active.
Flake’s report recommends that the federal government should:
- Set clearly-defined national goals and objectives for federally-funded research projects (Examples could include advancing vaccines and treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and Zika)
- Prioritize the hundreds of billions of dollars of existing federal research funding to best meet those national goals and objectives in a manner strengthens American’s scientific leadership
- Enhance public awareness of government research projects by making the purpose, findings, and cost of each study more accessible to taxpayers
- Improve processes for evaluating funding requests to ensure limited research dollars are not spent on unnecessary or duplicative studies
In line with the recommendations included in Twenty Questions, Flake’s newly-introduced Federal Research Transparency and Accountability Act would direct the Office of Management and Budget to establish a system to detect and prevent duplicative research and development projects. The bill would also require every agency to make all unclassified, federally-funded research, and development projects publicly available online in a searchable website containing: a summary of the research, the cost, the name of the contractor or grantee, and the title of published studies conducted as part of the project.
- Twenty Questions is Flake’s fifth oversight report on wasteful federal spending since November 2015.
- In December 2015, Flake continued retired U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-Okla.) tradition of publishing an annual Wastebook when he released Wastebook: The Farce Awakens, an oversight report highlighting 100 examples of wasteful government spending that totaled over $100 billion.
- In November 2015, Flake joined U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in releasing Tackling Paid Patriotism, a report on their joint investigation of taxpayer-funded payments by the Department of Defense to professional sports teams for patriotic displays honoring the U.S. military. This practice has now been banned due to an amendment that Flake, McCain, and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) added to the National Defense Authorization Act.
- In June 2015, Flake responded to calls for a return to the practice of congressional earmarking by releasing Jurassic Pork, a report highlighting the continued cost of pork projects in the post-earmark-ban era. The report, along with Flake’s Jurassic Pork Act, help lead to the elimination of long-term, unobligated transportation earmarks – also called orphan earmarks – in the 2016 omnibus.
- In December 2014, Flake published the Science of Splurging, a report highlighting more than a dozen examples of wasteful and egregious spending by the Environmental Protection Agency.
- Additional ongoing efforts by Flake to highlight and eliminate wasteful federal spending include PorkChops, Deep Thoughts from Taxpayer-Funded Studies, and WasteLine.
- As a member of the House of Representatives, Flake highlighted an Egregious Earmark of the Week from 2003 to 2010. The series concluded when Congress enacted the current self-imposed moratorium on congressional earmarks.