The Scientific Approach to Budget Cuts

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The
response to President Bush's latest budget proposal showed how the
system works in Washington. The welfare state not only collects
and redistributes hundreds of billions of dollars, but is rigged
to set off alarm bells the minute anyone proposes to reduce the
dollars redistributed. Even if the amounts are increased
by less than the inflation rate that is considered to be a cruel
and heartless thing. Sirens and bells will start their clamor. Agencies
threatened with any kind of a cut command the prompt attention and
sympathy of the same editors and headline writers who had previously
been complaining about budget deficits.

Consider the
science field, which I have been following since writing The
Politically Incorrect Guide to Science
[Regnery, 2005].
In some instances, the Administration proposes to increase spending
by less than inflation. That is called a cut. The overall budget
of the National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Md., was actually
doubled by Congress over a five-year period ending in 2003. Today,
that budget stands at $28,600,000,000. Under the new budget that
huge number will remain unchanged. And the budget of the National
Science Foundation, which funds the research of mathematicians,
physicists, chemists, biologists and computer scientists galore
at many universities, will be raised to $6 billion. That is an increase
of 7.8 percent over the previous year.

Here is how
Science magazine headlined its story on these developments:
"NIH Shrinks, NSF Crawls as Congress Finishes Spending Bills."
A chart accompanying the article showed the dramatic dollar increases
that the NIH has enjoyed in recent years. Its overall budget was
only about $6 billion as recently as 1986. But the scientists who
live so comfortably at the taxpayers' expense have grown accustomed
to their luxuries and perquisites. Annual budget increases have
for years exceeded eight percent on average.

So the latest
failure to increase the overall total was construed as a cut and
a slap in the face. Referring to the "gloomy 2006 budget news,"
Science lamented that the agency "is falling behind
inflation." For the editors of that magazine, week after week,
the protection of scientists' ready access to taxpayers' money is
the dominant concern.

Consider the
National Cancer Institute, one of the 19 institutes that comprise
the NIH. The New York Times reported that “Mr. Bush is seeking
$4.75 billion for the National Cancer Institute, which is $40 million
less than its current budget.” So the NCI budget (perhaps) will
go from $4,790,000,000 to $4,750,000,000. The next day, the Washington
Post ran on its op-ed page a piece headlined "Cancer Research
in Danger." It was written by officials of the Johns Hopkins
University cancer center that receives funds directly from the National
Cancer Institute. A piece of undiluted propaganda, it praised the
NIH as a "formidable economic engine that powers the country's
scientific advances." Furthermore, it "hands out grants
to more than 212,000 investigators at more than 2,800 universities,
medical schools and other research institutions." The article
lavished praise on specific grant recipients at John Hopkins's cancer
center, including one who is said to be the "world's most cited
researcher over a 20-year span."

If we discount
the improvement in cancer mortality due to the reduction in smoking,
there is little evidence that the research undertaken at vast expense
to the taxpayers since President Nixon's War on Cancer has done
any good. A strong statistical association between smoking and lung
cancer was established about 40 years ago by British researchers.
The U.S. War on Cancer began in 1971 and was supposed to have been
won by 1976. About 557,000 Americans died of cancer in 2003, a decrease
of 369 from the year before, attributable to a continued decline
in smoking. In 1971, 330,000 Americans died of cancer.

Incidentally,
only one of the 19 NIH institutes received a budget increase, and
that was the National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
This is the agency that "is leading research on bird flu and
biological terrorism," as the Times pointed out. Ah,
the budgetary implications of public-health scares. The institute
is headed by Anthony Fauci, who has headed up NIAID for decades
and was a key player in convincing the nation that AIDS is a disease
that puts us "all at risk," thereby paving the way for
massive funding increases to combat that much hyped threat.

When it comes
to government budgeting, hardly anyone dares to challenge the equation:
“More money ensures more progress toward achieving the stated goal
of the agency.” The efficacy of budget increases is an unquestioned
article of faith in Washington. The one area where some murmured
doubts have been heard is the field of public education. Testing
can give rise to scores and therefore quantification. SAT scores
have shown a strong inverse correlation with funding, and this alone
is sufficient to tell us why the teachers unions who profit from
government funding dislike testing.

Perhaps, today,
some enterprising researcher would care to quantify the changes
in the nation's health since the NIH enjoyed its enormous budgetary
increases. But I doubt that any such proposal would be funded by
the government.

February
11, 2006

Tom
Bethell [send him mail]
is a senior editor of The American Spectator. The
Politically Incorrect Guide to Science
(Regnery) was published
November 14.

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