Old Dominion University has recieved a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to conduct research on the pressing issue of whether lesbian couples drink too much due to stress. The grant states that
“Sexual minority women (i.e., women who self-identify as lesbian and bisexual) report more heavy drinking, more alcohol-related problems, and higher rates of alcohol use disorders as compared to heterosexual women. Despite this awareness, no studies have examined how relationship factors and partners’ alcohol use contribute to hazardous drinking among female sexual minority couples.”
Professor Jonathan Turley, who flagged this story, adds, “There may be a good reason for that.”
I almost made this an Ethics Quiz, asking if funding such research with taxpayer funds was responsible. I don’t present ethics quiz question when I am certain of the answer, though, and the more I thought about this, the more I began thinking of the late Senator William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece Awards.
In 1975, Proxmire launched the award with a press release announcing that the National Science Foundation had “won”after spending $84,000 to fund a study on the origins of love. For more than a decade, the Democrat from Wisconsin used his awards, which were chosen by Proxmire’s hand-picked panel of budget hawks, scientists and others, to focus attention on frivolous spending by dozens of government agencies, including the Department of Justice, the National Institute of Mental Health, and NASA, on trivial issues and mysteries. He also got a lot of publicity for the stunt, and sometimes even managed to kill the Golden Fleece-winning projects with the public outrage they generated.
Naturally, scientists hated this, and had contempt for Proxmire, whom they called “anti-science.” One scientist he mocked even sued Proxmire for defamation, in a case that reached the Supreme Court. In another example of alcohol-related research being called into question, Proxmire gave the award to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in 1975 for funding research into alcohol and aggression in fish and rats, stating that ” the most effective way to understand human conditions and problems is to observe human behavior.” University of California psychobiologist Harman Peeke, whose project was halted midstream by the fleece, bitterly responded, “I would really enjoy having Proxmire make a proposal to give people alcohol and ask them to fight. That’s simply unethical and immoral.”
There were and are five core objections to Proxmire’s awards, which shadow government research projects to this day:
1. It was just an anti-intellectual political stunt.
2. It led the public to be suspicious of scientific research and hostile to government funding
3. The research involved in the projects was just “a drop in the bucket”
4. Research that uncovers new truths is always valuable, and
5. Seemingly minor studies sometimes lead to important discoveries.
In 2012, item 5 led a coalition of various scientific and academic organizations create an anti-Pr0xmire award called the “Golden Goose Award,” which was designed to celebrate scientists whose federally funded research seemed odd or obscure at the time but turned out to have a positive impact on society. One of the first recipients of the Golden Goose Award was the late Wallace Coulter, who discovered a better way to count blood cells while using funding from the Office of Naval Research “improve the paint used on Navy ships.”
Applying the five objections to Proxmire’s opposition to narrow government-funded research to the drunk lesbian study, however, we see them as driven by faulty logic and rationalizations:
- Sure, The Golden Fleece Awards were a stunt, but it was a valuable stunt, educating citizens about the degree of waste and profligate spending in the federal government.
- #2 is a valid objection, as there was often more to the research Proxmire mocked than his sound-bite descriptions revealed, but taxpayers should be concerned when their money seems to be spent on wishes, ponies and rainbows. Science with underlying political and ideological agendas have also been used to distort public policy. Perhaps not suspicion, but certainly clear-eyed skepticism of scientific research is justified and healthy.
- #3 is just infuriating. It is an iteration of Rationalization #22, the worst of them all, arguing that since the government wastes billions on a regular basis, wasting a million dollars doesn’t count. If you want a good start to explaining how the national debt under Obama has more than doubled, standing in January of 2016 at more than $13.6 trillion, an increase of 116 percent since he first took office, look no further than this pervasive attitude, which is the definition of “irresponsible.” As the great Senator Everett Dirkson famously said, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”
The quote would have been equally true using “million” in place of “billion,” just not as funny.
- The assertion that research is always valuable when we learn something postulates a ridiculous absolute: research is more valuable than anything else. The question isn’t whether in an imaginary world requiring no priorities it would be nice to know why lesbians get soused, but whether a million dollars could be better spent on something else.
Of course it could.
- “Seemingly minor studies sometimes lead to important discoveries” is nothing but consequentialism of a particularly silly stripe, when used to justify throwing a million dollars against the wall to see what sticks to it. One can literally justify anything this way, via chaos theory’s “butterfly effect.” After all, if a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon can lead to a thunderstorm in Indianapolis months later, studying what makes lesbians drink might cure cancer. Ya never know!
Fine. But Proxmire was trying to make a serious point—he was a serious legislator–that appears to have been all but forgotten. When the government accepts the responsibility of taking the money of others and spending it on their behalf, it accepts the ethical obligation of responsible stewardship, just like a charity does. When you are spending other people’s hard-earned money, you have a duty to be careful, frugal, rational and fair. I’m pretty sure of what happened with the lesbian study: it’s a political sop to a Democratic voting bloc. If you asked the public as a whole whether they would rather see a million bucks used to reduce heart attacks—to take one of a million other options—or study the stress levels of drunk lesbians, what do you think the vote would be? I’d guess about 99%, including some tipsy lesbians, would vote for the heart research. Let this study wait until some drunk, rich lesbian couple wants to fund it privately. This isn’t a “we desperately need to know this, in the interests of public health!” study. This is a “oh hell, we’ve got some budgeted research funds we haven’t spent yet, let’s spend it on this” study.
How dare the government spend my/your/our money like that?
One reason is that its leaders spend our money like that.
If I were President, I would never take a vacation to anywhere that required a plane trip. Never. The costs of my entourage and the Secret Service detail are always in the millions for such a trip, and expending it is an extravagance. It can’t be justified. This is just one example of how a message is sent out from the top to everyone below regarding the respect that should be accorded to the public’s money. There is no respect. If there was any respect, spending taxpayer money on the drunk lesbian study would set off ethics alarms the second it was proposed.
Another reason is citizens—I assume they are progressive Democrats, but they might just be imbeciles, who reason like one of Professor Turley’s commenters, who wrote,
“Why are you worried about the federal debt? Federal debt is not like household or business debt. There is no timetable by which federal debt has to be repaid – ever. We still have debt from WWII that has not been repaid. So your great grandchildren will not be burdened with paying it back. Or their great grandchildren, either. And “printing money” does not necessarily cause inflation – despite increases in the debt, inflation is very very small.
I repeat – federal debt is not like household or business debt.”
Maybe the comment was written by a drunk lesbian.
Pointer: Jonathan Turley