Mike the Mad Biologist

A minor kerfuffle has erupted around healthcare expert and MIT professor Jonathan Gruber, with some fireworks between Glenn Greenwald and Paul Krugman. Gruber has received $392,600 in funding from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to model healthcare outcomes. The argument has arisen because Gruber has been promoted by the Obama administration as “objective” and “independent.” At first, I was very sympathetic to Krugman’s view:

The truth is that this is no big deal. Gruber’s grant is from HHS, not the West Wing; it’s basically the same kind of thing as, say, an epidemiologist receiving a grant from the National Institutes of Health. You wouldn’t ordinarily say that this tarnishes the epidemiologist’s credentials as an independent analyst on infectious diseases, unless you want to say that nobody receiving a research grant can be considered independent.

The only reasons you might see this differently would be if Gruber were either receiving a sweetheart deal, or seemed to have changed his views to accommodate his sponsors. Neither is remotely true. Gruber is very much the go-to guy on modeling reform: it’s hard to think of who else could be doing the work better. And his position on reform has been entirely consistent.

Should Gruber have made a fuller disclosure? Yes — I think he was being too much of an academic, taking for granted that everyone understands the difference between being a political hired gun and receiving a research grant.

If this were the case, then half of ScienceBlogs (if not more) would have to offer disclaimers all the time–including the Mad Biologist. But then I re-read this:

Gruber’s grant is from HHS, not the West Wing; it’s basically the same kind of thing as, say, an epidemiologist receiving a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Actually, it’s not. Not all. If you look at the grants Gruber received (technically, they’re contracts, which are different beasts), all of these awards are “not competed.” That’s very important.

To use Krugman’s example, an epidemiologist who receives NIH funding, in most cases, would have to compete against other proposals. Not only is there competition, but federal law prohibits elected officials from interfering in the decision process*. This might appear to be a subtle distinction, but what it means is that research outcomes are independent of political interference. If I receive a grant to study MRSA, it’s not dependent on the whims of an elected official (note: the decision to fund MRSA research in general can depend on said whims, but not who is chosen). This is critical, because it maintains the political independence of researchers.

But Gruber’s contracts didn’t work like this. Clearly, Gruber wasn’t a socialized medicine advocate who changed his tune because he received a big grant from HHS. But he can’t claim that he’s entirely independent either**. He received a directed contract, and the appearance of that does compromise one’s independence. There’s nothing wrong with that–if you enter the political arena, you’re not going to remain pristine. That might well be worth it–and in Gruber’s case–given the opportunity to advocate policies he has supported, it probably was.

But the price Gruber pays is a diminishing of his independence. You can’t have it all. And I don’t think it’s wrong to note this.

*Can elected officials muck things up? Sure, they can have hearings, cut off funding, and prohibit various research activities. But they are barred from deciding which institutions are awarded funding (much to their chagrin, on more than one occasion).

**I’m working under the assumption that Gruber, if he received personal compensation, it was only equivalent to his summer salary (academics are often paid for nine months, and the summer months are paid off of grant support). Apparently, he hired a couple of support personnel. Given what I know about MIT’s bloodsucking administrative apparatus, after personnel, summer salary, computational resources, travel, communication, and MIT’s administrative exsanguination, I don’t think Gruber personally made much money out of the deal. If he did, then there are serious issues. It would also be incredibly greedy, as business professors, particularly senior ones, are very well compensated (not by Wall Street standards, but certainly by most standards, including academic ones).