The Scientific Cost of Reflexive Ass-Covering

Or to use the term of art, proactive crisis management (rinses vomit out of mouth; boldface mine):

If they [NIH researchers] want to leave, though, to meet with scientists around the world at scientific and medical conferences, they spend their time doing paperwork instead.

“I’m allowed to approve my own experiments. I’m allowed to approve my own research protocol on humans. I am not allowed to approve my travel. This is what’s frustrating,” said Nehal Mehta. Mehta joined the NIH in 2012 from the University of Pennsylvania, in a new position created for promising researchers in the early stage of their careers.

Mehta and other NIH researchers say they keep getting entangled in the U.S. government’s travel bureaucracy. Designed to prevent waste, the rules cost millions of dollars to implement, stretch the approval process for travel to as long as half a year, and impede researchers from attending conferences that are a mainstay of scientific collaboration, the NIH says.

Strict travel rules were put in place for government workers after a scandal in which another agency, the GSA, was caught spending $823,000 on a Las Vegas conference in 2010. There were $34 breakfasts and shrimp appetizers priced at $4 a crustacean. People got fired.

“I understand why this oversight was put in place, because it’s a reaction to a couple boondoggles — which we had nothing to do with — but of course it spills out to everybody in government,” NIH Director Francis Collins said in an interview. “Science is really getting hurt.”

In total, the NIH says 156 workers keep tabs on 28,000 researchers going to more than 7,000 conferences annually.

That oversight is expensive — the NIH spent $14.6 million in 2014 to meet travel requirements and make sure employees didn’t overspend. That’s equal to a quarter of the agency’s $56.8 million conference travel budget, and almost as much as it plans to spend this year researching Down syndrome.

The NIH says it hasn’t had problems and doesn’t deserve the restrictions….

Collaboration with the rest of the scientific world is critical, since much of the agency’s $30 billion budget goes to outside researchers in the form of grants. In other cases, the NIH works directly with drug companies on new cures, like an experimental Ebola vaccine that’s a partnership between the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline Plc.

One NIH researcher claimed he lost out on opportunities to present his work at public meetings because the organizers thought he might cancel. While it’s not clear from the article how many trips are approved, let’s say four researchers attend each meeting, yielding 28,000 trips per year. At a budget of $14 million and change, that’s an additional cost of $500 per trip. Keep in mind that the scientist as well as the ‘local’ admin person still have to spend time doing paperwork which is not accounted for in the $14.6 million–and this paperwork is more onerous than it otherwise would be.

The insane thing is the amount of money saved is dwarfed by the cost of administering oversight. This is a predictable outcome when a significant fraction of the governing class–and not just conservatives–despise and do not trust government workers. If you don’t believe people will generally be good stewards of the public trust, the obvious solution is a massive fiscal surveillance apparatus that is expensive both in terms of money and time. Which ends up costing more.

But if you’re completely risk-averse (cough…Obama…cough), then this is what you end up paying for.

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1 Response to The Scientific Cost of Reflexive Ass-Covering

  1. paintedjaguar says:

    So. The sort of strictures that are normally the lot of poor and working class people are starting to be imposed on the middle class too. I can’t say that’s a good thing, but at least there’s the possibility that it could be educational. Nah, what am I saying… that’s just crazy talk.

    Of course it costs more to enforce than makes sense, both in cash and intangibles. That isn’t the point, any more than when the same mindset is applied to food stamps, disability benefits, employee “time theft”, health care co-pays or anything else that might somehow benefit the “undeserving”. And it’s always said to be about preventing waste and abuse, or in other words, “Think of the Children!”

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