Congressional Quarterly/Newscom

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) made it onto an Obama Administration fact sheet listing the “most damaging effects of a sequester on the middle class.”

According to the White House, under sequestration the agency “would be forced to delay or halt vital scientific projects and make hundreds of fewer research awards…[and] several thousand personnel could lose their jobs.”

As Senator Tom Coburn’s (R–OK) Wastebook 2012 reveals, some projects that have received NIH funding would not pass the laugh test, let alone prove to be vital. For example, the NIH spent:

  • $295,364 determining that male fruit flies are more attracted to younger female fruit flies than older female fruit flies;
  • $350,000 researching how golfers perform better when using their imagination;
  • $548,731 acquiring evidence that heavy drinking in a person’s thirties can lead to feelings of immaturity, while in their twenties it would not; and
  • $666,905 researching how fictional characters in books, movies, and television shows can help a person feel better about life.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported on ways to find savings at the NIH in its biennial Budget Options report released in March 2011. Capping the growth of the agency’s budget at 1 percent per year, for example, could save $10.3 billion between 2013 and 2021.

Another option would be to reduce the NIH budget authority—or new spending—to its 2003 level, which is the last year in which it saw a substantial increase, and then let it increase with inflation. Though the CBO report assumes 2012 as the year of implementation, such a reduction would still save taxpayers tens of billions of dollars over the next decade if enacted in 2013. As the CBO rightly points out:

[S]uch reductions would encourage increased efficiencies throughout NIH and more careful focus on priorities that will provide the greatest benefits.… Furthermore, spending by NIH nearly tripled from 1997 to 2010. With such a broad range of personnel and activities and a large increase in funding, inefficiencies and duplicative or wasteful efforts are likely. (emphasis added)

The CBO goes on to cite a Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessment from 2009 that found significant gaps in the NIH’s ability to track where some of its funds were going. To support studies on fruit fly attraction, golfers’ imaginations, and fictional characters, perhaps?

Before warning about the potential delay of “vital” research projects, President Obama should lead in ensuring that agencies such as the NIH use taxpayer dollars in ways that benefit the public good. Reducing the NIH’s massively expanded budget to force such efficiencies would be a good place to start.

T. Elliot Gaiser and Jason Lloyd are currently members of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.