Chair of House Spending Panel Says NIH Grants Violate Rules Against Lobbying

Jack Kingston

U.S. Congress

It's a tradition for some Republicans in Congress to take aim at research grants that they think are irrelevant and not worthy of taxpayer funding. Now, the chair of the House of Representatives spending panel that funds the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is claiming that some federally funded biomedical research violates government restrictions on lobbying state lawmakers or Congress.

The issue surfaced earlier this month at a hearing of the panel. Representative Andy Harris (R-MD) grilled NIH Director Francis Collins about two grants to tobacco control researcher Stanton Glantz of the University of California, San Francisco, in which some of the money was used to trace the Tea Party's origins to groups funded by the tobacco industry. The study reflected "a partisan political agenda," claimed Harris, who calls himself "a Tea Party guy." (Collins responded that he was "quite troubled" by the study.)

As a new member of the panel, Harris doesn't have much clout. But it turns out that its chair, Representative Jack Kingston (R-GA), has the same concerns.

At the same 5 March hearing, Kingston gave Collins this letter expressing concerns about several grants. In addition to Glantz's, Kingston objected to a 1-year, $50,000 award to criminology professor Catherine Gallagher of George Mason University to produce a monograph reviewing research on the health problems of young prison inmates. The letter quotes from Gallagher's abstract, saying the project "is intended to engage the medical, public health, criminal justice, policy, legal and advocacy communities by uniting diverse disciplines around a common issue."

Such studies aren't directly related to NIH's mission, Kingston's letter claims. "As elected officials, we cannot explain to our constituents why their tax dollars are used by NIH to fund advocacy groups [or] address political questions," it says. Kingston asked NIH to review within 30 days all of its grants to make sure they don't violate federal lobbying restrictions. Any activities that "address political questions or fund any advocacy group seeking to develop lobbying material" should be "halted," the letter says.

A week earlier, Kingston asked the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Inspector General (IG) to review the Glantz and Gallagher grants. As first reported by The Cancer Letter, Kingston's letter asks the IG to add the grants to an ongoing investigation of whether a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) program aimed at helping communities reduce obesity and smoking may violate a ban on using federal funds to lobby. (Several rules prohibit the use of HHS funds to influence Congress or state legislatures.)

Gallagher says her grant mentioned advocacy groups because only they have access to the prison population. "It's not us taking their plight to lobby," she says. "I think it's crazy in this climate of scare resources to waste people's time on such a trivial matter when we have such a long and dependable peer review process," she adds.

The distinction between research and advocacy came up after the December shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, which drew attention to a Congressional directive barring CDC from advocating for gun control. The White House declared that "research on gun violence is not advocacy" and asked Congress to fund $10 million in research in this area.