Remembrance of Wastebooks Past

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Senator Jeff Flake’s (R-AZ) recently released “wastebook” entitled Twenty Questions: Government Studies That Will Leave You Scratching Your Head, has indeed left research advocates scratching their heads. The wastebook targets federally funded research projects that Flake and his staff deemed unworthy of taxpayer funds and includes projects funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and other federal research agencies.

This isn’t Flake’s first wastebook targeting biomedical research. Last December he released a wastebook that most notably went after Sheila Patek of Duke University for her research on mantis shrimp. At an April 13 event called “Wasteful Research? Looking beyond the Abstract” in the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill, Patek got a chance to meet Flake and explain her research to him in person. Organizers of the event hoped Flake was beginning to understand that one cannot judge the merit of a grant based on a title or a two-sentence abstract. Yet research advocates are again having to defend the grant peer-review system.

As the title of the wastebook suggests, there are 20 questions the junior senator from Arizona proposes should be part of the review of grant applications seeking federal funding. These questions range from “Will this research advance science in a meaningful way?” to “Is more important research being shortchanged that could be supported with the funding requested for this study?” The final question is, “Does this represent the type of transformative scientific research necessary to preserve America’s scientific edge?”

Flake’s wastebook also came with the hashtag #20questions for his social media campaign, a floor speech, and an interview with ABC News. Throughout this process Flake has insisted that he’s not going after NIH-funded research.

“I’m not going around here trying to say NIH, NSF, and other federally funded research is a waste of money. It is not. The [sic] contrary I believe federally funded research can do wonderful and amazing things,” Flake stated during his floor speech on the report. “The report seeks that these agencies set clearly defined national goals and objectives for federally funded research. Following the example set by President Kennedy’s moonshot more than a half century ago, we ought to give the agencies a clear mission.”

Flake used Alzheimer’s disease, Zika virus, and advancing vaccines and treatments for cancer as examples of what the clearly defined national goals and objectives for federally funded research should look like. He stressed that the $18 trillion debt the country is facing is what led him to look into federally funded research projects.

Along with the new wastebook Flake introduced a bill called The Federal Transparency and Accountability Act. Flake’s website states that this is “a bill to ensure federal research dollars are better directed towards supporting transformative science while rooting out unnecessary spending on lower priority points.” In this bill, Flake proposes that the director of the Office of Management and Budget coordinate with each funding agency to establish a system to avoid duplicative funding. He also states that each federal agency should include in a publicly accessible database a searchable listing of each unclassified research and development project the agency funds, including contracts, grants, cooperative agreements, and task orders.

The bill has been referred to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. It does not yet have any cosponsors.

About the Author:


Tommy Mattocks is the new Public Policy Coordinator for ASCB. He previously worked in the U.S. Senate as the Press intern for Senator Maria Cantwell (D-CA), and Senator Tom Carper (D-DE).

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