What To Do With Unexpected Politically Sensitive Research Outcomes?

National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins was apparently surprised by the research results from one NIH grantee.  Unfortunately, this surprise was in the midst of a House appropriations hearing.

As ScienceInsider reports, Representative Andy Harris asked Director Collins about the research of NIH grantee Stanton Glantz, who is a noted researcher in tobacco control (policies to influence tobacco sales and use).  A recently published article supported in part by NIH grants makes an argument that the Tea Party has influences (or origins, depending on interpretation) in efforts to oppose tobacco control policies going back to the 1980s.  Rep. Harris disputed both the accuracy of the conclusions and the appropriateness of having federal funding support what Harris considers a partisan political agenda.  While having a Member of Congress dispute a research funding is neither new, nor reflective of their research expertise, the allegations of politically motivated research are serious.

Rep. Harris would appear to be on the same page as Senator Coburn, who in his opposition to federally funded political science research, argues that the American people already know enough about politics.  Harris dismissed the possibility of Glantz’s research being accurate simply because he knows better.  This would be the historical example of the old saw “The plural of anecdote is not data.”

Director Collins was caught flat-footed, expressing concern over the paper (characterizing it as unfortunate), and appearing to agree with Rep. Harris.  But he did recognize a meaningful tension – what to do about research results that can be politically sensitive while avoiding the urge to micromanage grantees.

Glantz has indicated that the Tea Party was not the intended focus of the research, which was intended to explore how tobacco industry financed groups influenced policymaking.  The Tea Party emerged during the course of research.  In this case, NIH would not have been aware of it until the research was submitted to PubMed and reported in ordinary post-grant paperwork.  Given the volume of research NIH is responsible for, I’m not surprised it was missed.  That doesn’t really excuse Director Collins arguably throwing Glantz under the bus.

Could NIH do more to be aware of potential complaints over research findings post-grant?  I think more monitoring of research findings makes sense for a number of reasons – avoiding Congressional embarrassment is just one of them.  But I’d rather not have this monitoring lead to post-grant publications restrictions.  Other agencies have issues with reports that aggravate various political constituencies.  Some of them have blinked, and I really hope NIH doesn’t follow suit.

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One thought on “What To Do With Unexpected Politically Sensitive Research Outcomes?

  1. Pingback: What Kinds Of Political Science Research Should Not Be Funded? | Pasco Phronesis

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