Taxpayers are paying for scientific scaremongering
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Congress might want to take a hard look at how taxpayers money is being squandered on junk science by some federal agencies.

One of the problems with government funded research is that organizations like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) provide grants to international organizations that have had a history of producing studies to target politically unpopular products and services. Right now, one international organization is waging a public relations war on coffee using American tax dollars to attack this popular, maybe America’s most popular, beverage.

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For everyday consumers, it is becoming nearly impossible to keep track of what gives them cancer. Last year, red meat and processed meats were declared carcinogenic and bacon was put in the same category as diesel exhaust. Back in 2011, headlines asked whether mobile phones could cause cancer.

Last month, outlets the world over carried the news that coffee might help prevent it. Many of these stories stem from the the International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC), an international research body based in France — and funded in large part by American taxpayers.

As a result of these controversies, IARC has started getting as much attention as the dangers it reports on. Its scientists aren’t doing much to moderate the media frenzy. Multiple experts have called out the body for its statements, which seem to stoke rather than temper headlines.

The coffee findings offer a typical example: back in 1991, IARC declared coffee to be “possibly carcinogenic,” alleging a link to bladder cancer. After a quarter century and numerous other studies, the agency finally reversed itself — calling a press conference to release a two-page summary of its findings, all while full results remain months away.

Of course, IARC is not the only scientific body stirring up media attention with ill-explained results. Back in May, partial findings from a $25 million, taxpayer-funded National Toxicology Program (NTP) study drew a potential link between mobile phone use and cancer in rats — reigniting one of the most heated debates IARC has weighed in on.

Those findings, however, did nothing to prove a link between cell phone “radiation” and cancer. In fact, they ended up living longer than the control group. Despite a myriad of critiques pointing out these and other flaws in the study, the damage had already been done: news outlets and environmentalists promptly began trumpeting the “landmark” and “game changing” results as evidence that iPhones could kill.

Unfortunately, headline-driven coverage does not have time to spell out nuances of how a study is conducted, its focus, and the influencers behind it — all of which can lead to different results. While their research might be separate, scientific bodies like IARC and the National Toxicology Program do have one very concrete thing in common: their work is funded by the U.S. government, despite the fact that IARC is part of the World Health Organization and is based in France.

Grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) are currently funding a large number of IARC programs. In fact, since 1985, U.S. taxpayers have spent more than $20 million to fund IARC programs, like this RFA for $859,000 in funding to the IARC program in FY 2015. In addition to confusing the general public, conflicting reports from these various bodies are now drawing pointed questions from members of Congress.

Robert AderholtRobert Brown AderholtTrump launches all-out assault on Mueller probe Republicans rally around Sessions after Trump criticism GOP leaders are unified: Firing Mueller a bad idea MORE (R-Al.), who sits on the House Committee on Appropriations and chairs the Subcommittee on Agriculture, wrote NIH director Francis Collins last month to request a briefing on recent IARC findings well as the standards NIH places on taxpayer-funded research.

The findings Aderholt was specifically referring to involved glyphosate, a widely used pesticide that the agency declared “probably” carcinogenic last year. As the Congressmen pointed out, those findings directly conflict with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s determination that glyphosate is unlikely to be linked to cancer.

The EPA, for its part, drew its own fire from Congress in May when it published and then unpublished a finalized rejection of the glyphosate-cancer link from its Cancer Assessment Review Committee (CARC). That mix-up prompted demands for explanations from Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology as well as Mike Conaway (R-Tex.), Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), and Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) of the Committee on Agriculture.

Rep. Smith then took things a step further by insisting EPA officials sit with Congressional staff for transcribed interviews, expressing concern that EPA representatives might have influenced the 2015 IARC findings for political reasons.

None of this is to say that the work of agencies like IARC and programs like the NTP and CARC is useless. In fact, the scientists working there are well positioned to provide valuable information to the public. With significant resources going to the studies they carry out, though, taxpayers should at least be able to expect coherent results as opposed to news-friendly scaremongering.

Otherwise, Congressional leaders should more stringently examine how and why Americans are funding these programs.

Langer is president of the Institute for Liberty, a conservative public policy advocacy organization.


 

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