Saturday, May 20, 2017

UW-Madison Urges Lawmakers to Gut Regulations

On April 26, 2017, Rebecca M. Blank, Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, testified at the Hearing on “Duplication, Waste, and Fraud in Federal Programs,” before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

She fed them a line of crap pandering to the Republican majority’s hell-bent desire to strip away all constraints on money-making. She made no mention of her institution’s duplication, waste, or fraud in federal programs, nor did she mention the university's many animal welfare violations, biosafety violations, or her institution’s repeated violation of the public trust. No, her message was clear: universities should not have to follow so many federal rules or be audited so much:

“We have spent many years adding layer upon layer of federal regulations, and we’re at a point where this is seriously impeding the productivity of our scientists.”

The underlining is in the original document. That was her main claim. But it isn’t because of the regularly violated regulations that the largest number of scientists at the university are not very productive. They aren’t productive because their major premises are dead wrong, though I am using productive differently than Blank. Universities use the word to mean the number of papers that someone gets published and the dollars they are able to bring in through successful grant applications. The actual result of the research, the measure of whether it leads to better healthcare, is not a factor in their calculations. It’s all financial bottom lines.

In the words of Blank, UW-Madison operates a “more-than a billion-dollar research enterprise.” Here’s a nice graphic from the university’s 2016-2017 Data Digest (I edited out previous years):

The largest slice of the funding pie comes from the Department of Health and Human Services, which is largely from the National Institutes of Health. In 2016, the university received $285,269,042 from NIH and $83,715,200 from NSF (about $370 million) according to the agencies’ webpages. The university’s 2015-2016 “Budget in Brief” reports that:

“The largest portion of the university’s budget, approximately $890 million, or 31 percent, is from the federal government. Most of this is competitively awarded to the UW for specific research projects and supports research time for faculty, staff, and students, as well as research facilities.”

Blank told the lawmakers that, "We can’t afford to sideline potentially life-saving research. And we know the system can work better, because we’ve seen it work better. Just consider the battle against the Zika virus:
... scientists at UW-Madison are leading the fight to control Zika. Several of them are posting their data publicly online in real time to quickly give others working to control the disease the best possible information. Because of the threat to public health, their initial proposal was given high priority and approved by the UW Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) and biosafety committees about a month after the researchers submitted their materials for approval. This was at a time when South America was seeing 20,000 new Zika infections every week, so even a one-month delay came at a significant cost, but this expedited process demonstrates what is possible with good communication and a common-sense approach....
She implied that the work the scientists conducted was in someway helpful in containing the epidemic or in treating the infected children. But it wasn't on either front. David O'Connor's lab which did report on a publicly-accessible webpage some of the results of their experimental Zika infections of rhesus monkeys. The rest of the story is that the lab's use of infant monkeys doesn't seem to have had very much to do with the response from doctors and health officials. The most important information emerged from epidemiology and clinical observation.

She went on to criticize the annual federal audits which she called excessive but admitted that they are conducted to be sure that institutions have "systems and procedures in place to provide proper stewardship of federal funds." She argued that because few problems are found, that the audits aren't needed. But the fear and worry that problems could be found is probably why they aren't. She of course didn't bring up the university's difficulty with keeping track of its money.

She told the lawmakers that the audits, conducted by Inspectors General were an overreach, but she did not mention the USDA's Office of Inspector General's repeated reports on oversight on animal use at institutions like the university which have been terribly damning and largely ignored.

She said:
Federal research grants come with many strings for a number of good reasons:
▪ To guard against improper spending of taxpayer dollars.
▪ To help to ensure research integrity.
▪ To increase access to research data and results.
▪ And most important of all, to help protect humans and animals involved in research.

We must operate from a shared set of ethical principles that guide scientific research. But the way in which these principles are translated into regulations by various federal agencies has created a system of unnecessary delays and expenses.
It would be awesome if she believed that protecting animals was at all important, if the university's culture reflected that, if it were the truth. But taxpayer dollars are wasted every time another animal is injected, cut into, poisoned, hurt, or killed at the university. If regulations protecting animals matter at all to the university, they would not have repeatedly broken state anti-cruelty laws by killing sheep through rapid atmospheric decompression or staging fights between mice, but they did and then slipped in a last minute amendment to the state budget exempting the university from the state laws protecting animals. Her claims were worse than just plain nonsense. On the matter of hurting animals she and a large number of citizens definitely don't share any ethical principles. Maybe the "we" was intended for the Committee Chairman, that man of the people, Ron Johnson R(WI).

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