Budget realities, research prioritization at CDC

The CDC Director Thomas Frieden sounded the alarm recently at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., where he linked budget cuts at the CDC to an increased health risk for Americans.

The risks from diseases are real and growing. And in light of that threat, perhaps more money should be spent improving the nation’s ability to respond to and, ideally, prevent disease outbreaks. However, concern about the size of the CDC budget — the requested FY 2014 budget is $6.6 billion — is not the same thing as concern about the amount of resources devoted to disease prevention.

Budgeting is about prioritization and making choices. Budgeters cannot shirk their responsibilities simply because some of the CDC’s programs are important. In fact, the importance of the CDC’s mission should cause it to increase its scrutiny of non-core programs.

For example, projects that are motivated by political considerations rather than their impacts on fighting diseases, such as two recent studies concerning alcohol consumption, should be on the budget-cutting list.

In one study, the CDC estimated the productivity losses created by abusive drinking. Abusive drinking is a problem, undoubtedly. But the value gained by spending scarce CDC resources estimating the dollar value of the productivity losses created by alcohol abuse is questionable.

It is even more questionable when the methodology used to estimate these values are flawed. Editorials in U.S. News and World Report and a Washington Post blog posting both raised serious concerns about CDC’s methodology.

In the other study, researchers, wearing white lab coats to secure patient cooperation, examined what brand of alcohol emergency room patients consumed. At least one medical ethicist took the CDC and its researchers to task. Arthur Caplan, head of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, noted, “Putting on white coats is not acceptable. It conveys the appearance of being caregivers — not researchers.”

Spending money on studies with obvious methodological flaws is always problematic. However, the wastefulness of these studies is amplified when the justification for these studies are political (that is, designed to influence policy such as alcohol regulation) and not scientific.

In fact, even Congress has noticed the politicized nature of some of the CDC’s research. In March 2012, Congressmen Ed Whitfield and Brett Guthrie took the CDC to task for what they perceived as clear violations of federal laws designed to prevent lobbying by government agencies. In response to these congressional inquiries, the CDC promised to reform.

This brings us back to the budgetary problems concerning Dr. Frieden. Given the country’s overall fiscal position, the CDC will face continued budgetary pressures for the foreseeable future. With such budgetary constraints, it is unconscionable for the CDC to fund politicized studies at the expense of research to cure AIDS, breast cancer or the identification of the next influenza outbreak.

The CDC can effectively pursue its mission of protecting the health of Americans by returning to its roots of fighting infectious diseases and stop wasting taxpayers’ money on politicized studies.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

Scroll to Top