A taxpayer-funded family feud

It is bad enough when an agency spends taxpayer money foolishly, but it is even worse when those expenditures end up undermining the conclusions of another agency.

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Between 2000 and 2014, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), sent $172.7 million in grant money to scientists to study the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) and its effect on humans, particularly as an endocrine disruptor, which is a chemical that interferes with hormonal activity. Some of these taxpayer-funded research studies have in turn been used by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to attack a sister agency of NIH within the Department of Health and Human Services: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has legal authority over BPA.

According to the FDA, BPA is used to make a hard clear plastic known as polycarbonate, which is widely used in consumer products, particularly food and beverage containers. BPA was first approved by the FDA in the 1960s and has consistently been found to be a safe product. Since the FDA is known for being overly cautious in its scientific and regulatory decisions, especially when it comes to approving life-saving drugs and medical devices, its conclusion that BPA is safe as it is currently used is significant.

Nonetheless, even though the FDA has found BPA to be safe for the past 50 years, NIH continues to dish out grant money in an effort to provide a contrary result. Even worse, the basis for these studies may not be academic; they may be political.

More than 70 percent of the grants to study BPA were provided between 2010 and 2014. This time period coincides with the tenure of NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum, a federal scientist with a 35-year career, who was appointed to the position on Jan. 18, 2009. She has been criticized by members of Congress for her participation in biased activities when, as a federal official at a science-based agency, she should be focused instead on providing impartial research.

Jon Entine, a journalist and researcher who focuses on science and public policy and has written with skepticism about the relationship of public policy, the media and NGOs, believes Birnbaum is a "high-profile supporter" of "academic scientists who look for endocrine effects regardless of whether those effects can cause harm."

In an Oct. 31, 2012 Forbes article, Entine discussed the continued attacks on BPA. He wrote, "one of the most disturbing trends in science reporting" is "the increasing tendency of reporters and [NGOs] to trumpet research that supports a pre-determined perspective, no matter how tenuous — or dubious — a study might be." According to Entine, this trend has been coined "single-study syndrome" by New York Times columnist Andrew Revkin.

Sure enough, following the single-study syndrome methodology, environmental groups and publications such as Mother Jones have used the expected predisposed NIEH-funded research to attack the FDA's work on BPA, tying up the agency's resources and fueling even more anti-BPA grants.

There are many occasions when the bureaucratic left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing, usually as a result of a lack of transparency and communication. But when one federal agency deliberately hands out more than $120 million to outside influences knowing that the findings can be used to attack and undermine the taxpayer-funded work of another agency, that idiom is elevated to a whole new and absurd level.

The taxpayer-funded family feud between the NIH and the FDA must end.

Schatz is president of Citizens Against Government Waste.

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