Trial By Error: Jennie Spotila’s Latest NIH Funding Fact-Check

Note: On her blog, Occupy M.E., Jennie Spotila recently posted another one of her indispensable close readings of NIH spending figures. I am reposting this here with Jennie’s permission.


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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