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Flake is right: Time to drain the research swamp

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Arizona Senator Jeff Flake’s annual Wastebook would be hilarious if it weren’t chronicling such a heartbreaking waste of taxpayers’ money. This year’s report is especially timely because it provides a useful roadmap for a growing movement of Republicans and Democrats in Congress who are rightfully scrutinizing federal spending on research, particularly untold billions spent on scientifically and ethically dubious experimentation on animals.

Stephen Kaufman

Stephen Kaufman

The Wastebook’s examples of questionable taxpayer-funded animal experimentation range from silly to bizarre to downright cruel. The National Science Foundation spent $1.5 million in stimulus funds to force amphibious fish to walk on treadmills “to exhaustion.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture used $118,000 to figure out how fast you need to race a Ford F250 pick-up truck at birds before they are unable to escape and become roadkill. And the National Institutes of Health (NIH) spent $3.4 million on Fight-Club-style experiments in which hamsters are injected with steroids and forced to battle one another.  It also spent more than a quarter-million dollars to see whether monkeys preferred photos of other monkeys’ rear ends on red or blue backgrounds.

Sadly, these boondoggles are just the tip of the iceberg. At the NIH alone, at least $15 billion a year—about half the agency’s research budget—is spent on animal experiments that, like the monkey butt study above, are often irrelevant to improving peoples’ health or that officials openly admit are doomed to fail. When it comes to biomedical research, NIH writes, “Current methods of assessing drug safety and efficacy in pre-clinical animal models are expensive, time-consuming, and many times do not accurately predict results in humans.” Specifically, NIH reports that an astounding 95 percent of medications and other treatments that pass animal tests fail in human trials because they don’t work or are dangerous.

The problem with rooting out wasteful spending like that highlighted in Senator Flake’s Wastebook is a severe lack of public information. Thankfully, increasing accountability about federal spending on animal experimentation is not a partisan issue, and may be one of the few topics uniting Republicans and Democrats right now.

Last month, after the non-profit White Coat Waste Project exposed secretive dog experimentation at the Department of Veterans Affairs, NIH and other agencies, a bipartisan group of influential House members—including Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva—requested that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) conduct an audit to address a lack of public disclosure about experiments on dogs and other animals in federal facilities.

The letter read, in part, “Unfortunately, we have discovered it is impossible to determine what federal animal research programs currently entail, what they cost and if they meet federal standards because of the limited and decentralized information available publicly…. Such transparency and accounting deficiencies prevent assessments by Congress and the public of the cost-efficiency and effectiveness of what we estimate to be a multi-billion-dollar government enterprise.”

Democratic Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) submitted a related request to GAO, writing, “Transparency about federal spending on animal research is especially critical given some evidence suggesting that such research is often wasteful and inefficient.”

As a physician and medical educator, I applaud Senator Flake’s crucial work to end wasteful spending that squanders resources that are badly needed for research and services that will actually improve the health of children, veterans, and other Americans. As he writes in the new Wastebook, “Taxpayers have had enough of this monkey business which shouldn’t be provided another red cent.”

Dr. Stephen Kaufman is a board-certified physician and clinical assistant professor at Case Western School of Medicine. He also serves as a medical adviser to the non-profit White Coat Waste Project. 

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The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.

One comment

  1. Thank you for writing this, Dr. Kaufman. I am a donor to White Coat Waste Project, a great organization.

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