We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Framingham Heart Survey

Austerity roolz! (boldface mine):

The Framingham Heart Study, the nation’s longest running large-scale analysis of cardiovascular disease, is facing a budget reduction of $4 million, or about 40 percent of the money it receives through its core contract with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI).

The study will remain open, but the cuts, which are effective Thursday, will force layoffs in November of 19 clinical and administrative workers, as well as the elimination of examinations and lab operations. The FHS, which began in 1948 with 5,209 residents of Framingham, Massachusetts as its subjects, has produced more than 2,850 papers and is credited with coining the term “risk factors” as well as saving or improving the lives of countless people.

The cuts are the result of both the automatic federal spending reduction known as the sequester and shifting budget priorities of the NHLBI, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.

“We generally receive a seven-year contract to conduct examinations of the Framingham Heart Study participants,” says FHS principal investigator Philip Wolf and a professor at the School of Medicine. “In the past we have received approximately $9 million per year. Last month, we learned we would receive only a two-year contract renewal beginning April 1, 2015, for approximately half the usual amount, and no exams were included. Instead, contact between the participants and investigators was to be by mail with follow-up by telephone, and additional examinations were to be funded from as yet unspecified research grant submissions.”

Wolf described the exams as “the lifeblood of the study.” The exams, he says, maintain continuity, participant loyalty, and the opportunity to obtain medical information, from blood pressure to electrocardiographs to blood, urine, and cell specimens. They also collect information for ancillary research not funded in the contract, such as data on vascular stiffness, bone mineral density (for osteoporosis), physical activity, sleep, and cognitive performance (to track mental decline with age and time), as well as from brain MRI scans (for changes with aging and dementia).

“We have maintained outstanding participant retention over decades to a great extent by maintaining a strong relationship between Framingham participants and investigators,” he says. “We fear that will be lost if no exam is done.”

The survey becomes much less valuable without the exams. The problem with any longitudinal survey is that once you skip data collection, you never get another chance–that time point (or points) are lost. This is incredibly short-sighted, but there’s a lot of that going around (boldface mine):

But there is a more general issue here, at least from my perspective, and it pertains to the erosion of public research and knowledge funding. We’re about to see substantial cuts to federal research and development funding, such as that from the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation. Public libraries are being closed all over the nation. There was even an attempt to eliminate the American Community Survey, a vital national survey of U.S. households that provides a range of data unavailable from other sources.

Supporters of public R&D investment often oppose these cutbacks by appealing to cost effectiveness, international competitiveness or national security. These are important arguments, but my personal reaction is a bit more visceral and less pragmatic – scaling back basic public investment in research and data are signs of a nation in decline.

For those scientists who think politics are beneath them, this is why you have to be engaged. This is why worrying about idiots (and there are many of them) who don’t realize that, with a fiat currency, money can never be a limiting resource. And does anyone honestly believe that restoring the $4 million to the FHS would cause runaway inflation or a misallocation of resources? It does mean, however, that nineteen people directly lost their jobs, and probably nearly double that once you factor in the money multiplier. Not to mention the science. Just spend the fucking money.

And the congregation responds: This is yet another reason why we can’t have nice things.

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1 Response to We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Framingham Heart Survey

  1. ken says:

    Everything in life has a sell-by date. Framingham has had institutional inertia that, despite the high quality of the work and investigators, long ago stopped making major new contributions to the important areas of the science. Even some of the earliest, original findings have come under question as a result of new knowledge (and no fault on the part of F’ham’s investigators or their work).

    We have to be able to terminate large, long-term studies to make funds available to new, junior, investigators who are more likely to come up with innovative insight–and at less per capita cost. F’ham isn’t the only everlasting project that needs to be closed for similar reasons. Everything reaches a stage of diminishing returns

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