Another NIH Funding Fact Check

In April, NIH finally published their funding numbers for ME/CFS research in 2018. That means it is time for another fact-check and correction!

For the second year in a row, NIH has significantly overstated its investment. For 2018, NIH claims it spent 10% (almost $1.5 million) more than it actually spent. NIH also claims that funding fell by 4.5%, when the truth is that our funding fell by 10%. In a disease like ME/CFS, this has serious consequences because the funding number is at the center of so much policy debate and advocacy efforts.

How Much Was Spent in 2018?

On the Categorical Spending Chart, NIH states that it spent $14 million on ME/CFS in 2018. The chart links to the list of projects and grants included in that number. Here is how it breaks down:

  • Extramural grants: $4,663,553
  • Collaborative Research Centers: $6,959,487
  • Intramural projects: $2,417,815

This comes to a total of $14,040,855, which NIH rounds down to $14 million. But there’s a problem, and it’s the same problem I found in 2017. The intramural number is not limited to money spent on ME/CFS.

The Intramural Problem

NIH lists three intramural projects in 2018:

  • Dr. Avindra Nath’s Clinical Care Center study: $750,000
  • Dr. Leorey Saligan, “Investigating Correlates and Therapeutics of Fatigue”: $172,552
  • Dr. David Goldstein, “Biomarkers of Catecholaminergic Neurodegeneration”: $1,495,263

*record scratch* $1.5 million to Dr. Goldstein for biomarkers? For real?

Actually no, that number is not for real, at least not as far as ME/CFS is concerned. Dr. Goldstein’s project page lists a number of different projects, most of which are related to Parkinson’s Disease. The connection to ME/CFS is the fifth item listed under Collaborations:

e) Clinical catecholamine neurochemistry in chronic fatigue syndrome: We are collaborating in an intramural study of chronic fatigue syndrome (NIH Clinical Protocol 16-N-0058, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/ Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, PI Avindra Nath) by conducting screening autonomic function testing and provocative tilt table testing and assaying plasma and cerebrospinal fluid levels of catechols.

No specific amount of funding is listed for any of the subprojects on Dr. Goldstein’s intramural study. I ran into the same problem last year. In 2017, NIH included the full cost of the Human Energy and Body Weight Regulation Core in its ME/CFS spending, despite the fact that the funding was actually spent on twenty-six different clinical protocols. When I asked NIH how much of the funding could fairly be allocated to Dr. Nath’s study, the NIDDK Office of Communication said there was no such breakdown available. I had to guesstimate how much funding to include in 2017, and I had to do the same for 2018 as well.

I divided the Goldstein funding among all the listed subprojects and collaborations, and arrived at a 2.5% share to the ME/CFS study. Is that fair or correct? No idea!!! The lack of precision in NIH’s accounting (at least publicly) means we have to guess. One thing I do know for sure: NIH should not claim the entire $1.5 million from Goldstein’s work in the ME/CFS category. It artificially inflates the funding number by a significant amount.

Back in October, I calculated that NIH spent $11,623,040 in 2018. Now I can add the intramural numbers. With the addition of the Nath, Saligan, and 2.5% of the Goldstein funding, I calculate that NIH actually spent $12,585,592 in 2018.*

How Big Is The Difference?

NIH’s failure to accurately calculate the intramural funding number results in a significant overstatement of the ME/CFS investment for both 2017 and 2018.

NIH Calculation My Calculation NIH Overestimate
FY 2017 $14,725,728 $13,967,704 5% more than spent
FY 2018 $14,040,855 $12,585,592 10% more than spent

In case the table is unclear, NIH overestimated its ME/CFS spending in 2018 by 10%, or almost $1.5 million. The overestimate is due to NIH’s failure to assign the correct amount of intramural funding to the ME/CFS total.

The inflation of the funding number also affects the calculation of changes in funding from year to year. Using NIH’s numbers, funding decreased by 4.6% from 2017 to 2018. But using my numbers–which excludes project dollars not actually spent on ME/CFS–funding decreased by 10% in 2018. Here’s a graph of NIH’s calculation compared to mine for 2016 through 2018:

Numbers Have Consequences

NIH’s Categorical Spending Chart is widely accepted as accurate and authoritative. The numbers are relied upon by Congress, journalists, and advocates. When NIH reports inaccurate numbers on this Chart, those numbers are repeated by everyone else, even if the numbers are actually wrong.

In a research area like ME/CFS, where the annual investment is so incredibly low compared to the NIH’s budget, reporting a number that is off by more than $1 million is a big deal. That $1.5 million is almost enough to fund another Research Center for a year.

Reporting that funding declined by 4.5%–when it is actually 10%–is significant. It obscures the truth and minimizes the very serious funding problem in ME/CFS research. Counting money towards ME/CFS that was not actually spent that way, even if it is due to a sloppy accounting policy and not malfeasance, is misleading. This is true for every research category, but the effect is much stronger for diseases like ME/CFS that are already subsisting on tiny crumbs from the NIH budget.

This is yet another way that the burden of accuracy and attention to detail is shifted to our disease community that is already carrying so much. Why did I have to invest hours of my time over several weeks to ferret out the correct number and pass that information on to you? Why should I have to make my self sicker and do NIH’s accounting job?

Because it has to be done. We need the accurate numbers, and we need to use them everywhere. Use them in talking to Congress, in asking questions of NIH, in participating in discussions like the NANDS Working Group, in speaking publicly about the ME public health crisis, and in writing about it.

I believe my work has shown–over many years–that regardless of the intentions of individuals at NIH and other agencies, we cannot assume that the agencies will do the right thing and report the right thing to us. We have to do this fact-finding work in order to hold them accountable.

If our goal is to secure more research funding in order to identify treatments for patients, then use the correct information. NIH spent $12.5 million on ME/CFS in 2018, not the $14 million that they claim. Funding was down 10% in 2018, and we slide backwards down the funding ramp that Dr. Francis Collins had promised us.

Use the correct information. Require NIH to use the correct information, too. And trumpet the truth: ME/CFS funding at NIH fell by 10% in 2018.

 

*I’ve corrected that earlier post with these new numbers.

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14 Responses to Another NIH Funding Fact Check

  1. Eimear Forde says:

    Holding out for better news in 2019.. Thanks Jennie for such huge efforts in getting accurate info. As you say, it will be useful for the working group.

  2. Denise says:

    I am sorry for the toll it takes on you to show the defects in NIH’s accounting – though I greatly appreciate that you do this for us!
    NIH – Falling funding is so unfair for a disease that is already woefully underfunded. This cannot go on. We deserve appropriate funding and accurate accounting by NIH.

  3. Rivka says:

    We are so lucky to have you do this work. I’m so sorry it takes such a toll on your health.

    Truly, what is wrong with our National Institutes of Health?

  4. Sofia says:

    Jenny , I solute you for the incredible job you doing , we are lucky to have you . Sometimes it feels like a war without end . I keep asking myself , is it lack of empathy , corruption or what ????? Can’t come up with an answer , hope somebody will . Thank you again and again . Wish you health , keep fighting .

  5. If you (and possibly a few others like you involved in getting the grants) don’t do this, the NIH and its top executives get away with putting out the same old fake news: say what you want, as no one care or checks.

    And if taxed, will probably blame an underling.

    I don’t know how you have the stomach for it, you and David Tuller, but I’m glad you do. And I thank you for spending your precious energy on this garbage we are offered as ‘food.’

  6. Cathy says:

    Jennie,

    You are one of our sheroes with your analysis! Thank you for once again highlighting important information.

  7. Sam Pearce says:

    JENNIE, YOU ARE MAGNIFICENT!!!
    This is not heroic, but super-heroic work on the level of Alem Mattees and Tom Kindlon. I don’t know where we would be without you. Praying you feel the sacrifice is worth it. Rest now and let us trumpet your achievement. NIH lies show their shame: the edifice the BPS lobby have shored up for so long is slowly crumbling. Take heart.
    Much love and many thanks xxx

  8. Pat says:

    You are amazing!!👍👏🏻

  9. Roy S says:

    So now Whittemore says the NIH doesn’t have any extra money?
    (expletives deleted)

  10. Marc Simon says:

    Hi Jennie,

    Thanks for doing all this painstaking work. I had hoped that one of our national advocacy organizations would take this work on as a way of measuring the efficacy of their efforts. Sadly none of them seem interested. The graph in Cort Johnson’s article (https://www.healthrising.org/blog/2019/02/16/lie-nih-accelerating_research-slogan-me-cfs/) displaying NIH CFS/ME funding as a percentage of it’s overall budget puts the reality of our situation in stark terms – so far the NIH is only capable of episodic funding bursts that do not endure. The NIH seems unwilling to make a sustained effort to increase ME/CFS research funding levels.

    The question is why – what changes the behavior of the NIH? Is there some other chronic illness similar in nature to ME/CFS that the NIH ramped up research for in the past? I don’t know that AID’s is the best example of an illness to consider because healthy people could relate to it as a terminal acute illness not a lingering chronic one.

    • Laurie P says:

      I think that there are important comparisons to AIDS to be made. This excerpt by Kenneth J. Friedman, from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fped.2019.00131/full is an example:

      “Despite HIV/AIDS currently being considered a manageable disease, the proposed U.S. HIV/AIDS budget for 2018 was $32 billion of which 85 % ($20.7 billion) was for domestic care and treatment programs, 9% ($3.1 billion) for domestic care and housing assistance, 7 % ($2.2 billion) for domestic research, and 2 % ($0.7 billion) for domestic prevention (52). There are no domestic care, treatment, prevention, or housing programs for ME/CFS patients. For ME/CFS, a disease estimated to have more than double the number of patients, and with a quality of life judged to be as or more diminished than that of HIV/AIDS, the disparity in patient care and patient benefits is unsettling.”

      Dr. Friedman also says, “AIDS patients were identified in 1981 and the virus causing AIDS was identified in 1984 (79).” I got sick in 1983, like so many others who got sick in the 1980s, but we got cast aside and remain cast aside with the addition of decade’s worth of misinformation, stigmatization and discrimination. Cort tweeted https://twitter.com/CortJohnson/status/1114281540333318144, “#MECFSatNIH19 – Maureen Hanson – talks about upsurge in cases 35 years ago….something happened.” I agree, something happened and they can’t just keep sweeping it and us under the rug like it didn’t happen and like we aren’t really out here in desperate need of help and justice!

      There is so much that the NIH could do to stop this discrimination if they had the will to do it. This is also from Dr. Friedman’s article:

      “Some of the professional scientists who have pursued ME/CFS have jeopardized their careers and livelihood (31). Medical school clinicians have been told to stop seeing ME/CFS patients because they require too much of a clinician’s time, and, if they do not stop, they will need to work elsewhere. Researchers have been told that ME/CFS research will not be considered for their promotions, and if they are not promoted, they will need to leave the institution. Medical educators have been told that ME/CFS educational activities are not, “professional,” and those activities are banned from the workplace. While the NIH State of Knowledge ME/CFS Workshop, held in 2011, exposed and documented these problems (31), there has been no documentation of NIH objecting to any of these practices. NIH could withhold or limit funding to institutions which discourage or do not permit medical research and patient care for diseases that are of importance to the NIH. Not even the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which claims academic freedom as its core mission (32), has objected to academic, institutional bans on ME/CFS research, clinical care, and educational activities.”

      If the NIH withheld or limited funding, institutions would very quickly get the message that ME/CFS is a disease to take seriously and that would also generate more grant applications.

      • Marc Simon says:

        Hi Laurie,

        I agree that it is useful to compare the governments response to AIDS with their [non] response to ME/CFS as a way of illustrating the iniquities of the situation. However the political dynamics in each case are different enough to make me think that the ME/CFS community should consider other historical examples where a disease that was being ignored finally evoked a response from the government commensurate with the suffering it caused. With AIDS the attitudes of the lay public could be enlisted to generate political pressure for an adequate government response. I think it will be much more difficult to enlist the lay public on our side – we have a weird illness and more to the point most of the authoritative medical organizations have a hostile or indifferent attitude to us. It was hard for physicians to claim that AIDS was not a serious problem when it was A: a communicable illness and B: people died from it in easily observable ways in a relatively short period of time. The ME/CFS community is thus faced with 2 obstacles – the ignorance of the lay public and the active hostility from sections of the medical establishment. I have read that MS sufferers were in a similar situation in the past – chronic disabling illness like MS are a probably better comparison for ME/CFS than AIDS in terms of the political dynamics of government / medical response. If I have some energy I may look into the history of MS and how it became a “politically correct” illness within the medical community.

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