Federal research grants are important. They provide money for a huge range of scientific research that otherwise would not be done. We, as a society, have decided that they are good, though both the left and right and everyone in between may disagree about specific programs.
Here is a behind the scenes look at your tax dollars at work for federal research grants and the problems that arise when non-experts have a go at the process.
Information shown is somewhat variable, but, in general, you will find: the funding agency, the PI (principle investigator), the PI's institution, co-Is (co-investigators), the date the funding starts, the date the funding ends, the amount of funding, and an abstract that describes the research that was provided within the proposal. You won't find the actual proposal because it contains proprietary information -- not only sometimes classified information, but also the ideas and methodology behind the proposal (so the team doesn't get "scooped"), and even the layout and style of the proposal itself. (There are many ways to write a proposal, and some of them are very effective, while others are very ineffective).
The problem with this information is that to the average person, a non-expert, the proposal can easily look like a waste of money. There is none of the broader context explaining what the proposal may do and the implications for it beyond the immediate research. Despite a tiny fraction of the federal budget going to research grants, various bloggers, reporters, and even congresspersons will often pull up a random title and claim that it's an amazing example of government waste. (The federal budget for government-funded scientific research is around 3.4%. FY2015 budget is around $3.97T, but science is $135B, and just under half of that is defense, leaving 1.8% for non-defense.)
This scenario seems to have been the case with a recent Washington Free Beacon article titled, "Feds Spent $432,000 Studying Gay Hookup Apps" with the subtitle, "NIH project studied 'arousal' of gay men when using Grindr." ("Grindr" is a hookup app for smart phone and similar devices that is targeted to gay men; a version for heterosexual couples exists called "Tinder.")
There are three distinct problems here, and I don't know if there's a good solution to any of them: (1) There is no context, making it easy to complain; (2) titles of proposals are often whimsical; and (3) people don't realize that less than half of the money goes to the actual researcher(s).
The first issue is that when we write grant proposals, we write them at a level where someone in our field or closely related field can understand them. When I write a crater-related proposal, I try to generalize the abstract to explain to a general person familiar with planetary geology what I plan to do and why. I then spend several pages within the proposal giving background information so that someone who models the interiors of planets or studies Jupiter's atmosphere would be able to understand why I want to do an observational study of impact craters.
I don't write my abstract so that someone who works for a law firm, in retail sales, or even in Congress, would understand it. That would simply require "dumbing it down" too much. I don't mean to imply that those people are dumb; rather, we have a very limited amount of space to explain why we want to do the research, how we're going to do it, the broader implications, the proposal team, the management structure, and justify the budget. If we also had to write it at a level that anyone could understand it, we'd never be able to get into those necessary details.
Therefore, what makes it into the jargon-filled abstract that would be made public (if I win the grant) will rarely make sense to a general person just picking it up randomly.
Similarly, we often write titles to try to stand out to the review panels - something fun and whimsical, for example, to elicit a smile. After all, most of us who write proposals also sit on (other) review panels, so we know the mindset of panelists. For example, one might entitle a proposal, "Studying Martian 'Holes in One.'"
A congressional staffer or random blogger may pick that up thinking, "Wow, why is NASA funding something about golf on Mars?" and then run to their boss and make a pretty chart and NASA's funding gets cut.
In reality, my "Holes in One" proposal would be about studying meter- and decameter-scale craters in an observational and statistical study to try to understand where they are most common, how dense they are, and therefore what the likelihood is that a a future spacecraft may inadvertently land in one based on the target area for the craft. This happened with the MER Opportunity when it landed on Mars eleven years ago. It turned out to be good because the crater's walls let Opportunity see a lot of otherwise buried layers, and it was able to get out of the crater. But if the crater were a little steeper, or a little smaller, then the rover would not have been able to escape or it may have fallen over and not have been able to righten itself.
Now, you see, my proposal seems much more important: You send a half-$billion craft to Mars, you're going to be more willing to fund a $300k study into impact crater hazards for landing, right? But, a layperson may never get past the title and flag it for government waste.
And that leads into the third issue: We don't get that money. On a proposal I wrote several years ago, just as an example, the total budget for the three-year proposal was about $330k. Salary was about $130k, a little over one-third of the total amount. That was my salary as a graduate student half-time for 1 year, and me as a postdoc half-time for 2 years, and my then-advisor for 1 month each year. Where did the rest of the money go? The vast majority was institutional overhead, which covers administration staff salary, budget office salary, building rent, lights, computer support, custodial staff, etc. Then there were benefits, like health insurance, life insurance, and retirement (and as a grad student, tuition). There was also money in there for a new computer and software licenses so I could do the work. About $10k was travel to conferences and another $6k was publication costs: After all, I could do the most ground-breaking study ever, but if I never told anyone about it, then what's the point?
So, while a study may look like it costs a lot, and overhead rates vary considerably across different institutions (and are generally higher at private companies versus public universities), a very very general rule-of-thumb is to divide the total amount by 3, and that's salary.
That brings us back to the article in question. Now that you have all that in mind, let's look at it. Using the NIH (National Institutes of Health) search form, here's the grant, awarded to Dr. Karolynn Siegel, entitled, "Use of Smartphones Applications for Partnering Among MSM." MSM is "men who have sex with men" (since many men are unwilling to identify as bi or gay but do have sex with other men).
You might again be thinking that this seems like a very narrow, targeted study that has no application to people beyond MSM who use Grindr and similar software. But, take a moment and think more broadly about it from both a social and medical standpoint: Smartphones and GPS-enabled devices have drastically changed how we interact, so from a social standpoint we need research to better understand that phenomenon. From a health standpoint, it's dramatically increased the ease of casual sex, especially among gay men where there is still a stigma of trolling the bars or streets for a partner. Since these kinds of applications also exist for heterosexual people, the findings from a study of gay males hooking up could have implications for straight men and women, too. And, casual sex will increase the risk of STDs (sexually transmitted diseases). So, from a public health standpoint, understanding a strong new vector for how diseases spread is the first step to trying to determine ways to minimize that risk. Both for straight and gay persons.
I deduced that without reading the abstract. From the abstract (emphasis mine):
The study aims are:
1. Examine how and why smartphone applications are used for sexual partnering, the situations and locations in which they are used, in order to gain insights into how these use patterns might contribute to sexual risk behaviors.
2. Investigate the process by which MSM use smartphone applications to find sexual partners (i.e., who they look for, how they present themselves, how they communicate, extent of safer sex negotiation,and disclosure) to gain insights into how this process may contribute to sexual risk behaviors.
3. Investigate the sexual and emotional states (e.g., more/less urgency, arousal, impulsivity) that MSM experience when seeking or meeting sexual partners using smartphone applications and gain insights into how these states may contribute to sexual risk behaviors.
4. Examine the perceived need and acceptability of a smartphone delivered intervention and assess what MSM perceive as needed components for a smartphone-based sexual risk reduction intervention.
Meanwhile, the cost - $432k - may seem high. But, divide by three, and we're down to around $150k salary. For a medical researcher, working for two years, at maybe half or a third of their time on this particular grant, that doesn't seem very high anymore. Especially if most of it is given to graduate students who will be conducting the actual interviews with the 60 MSM in the study and Dr. Siegel is there for a month a year to supervise and then more at the end to crunch the data (grad students are cheap labor!). In medical studies, there's also money that is sometimes paid out to participants as compensation for participation (I have no idea if that's the case in this study, but I know it happens in others).
And so, we went from a headline in this case - as done in the past, and will be in the future - that is meant to drum up a specific reaction (Government waste!). But, that leaves out any form of context as to the broader implications of this kind of study and why it's important to do.