On Sept. 20, Improbable Research - an organization comprised mostly of scientists who like to make fun of other scientists - handed out their annual Ig Nobel Prizes. The awards ceremony celebrates some of the oddest, most unusual and silliest ideas in scientific achievement.
What the Razzies are to movies, the Ig Nobel Prize is to scientific research.
It's an opportunity to have a good chuckle at brilliant people putting their considerable talents towards some pretty goofy research. The awards would be pretty funny... if taxpayers weren't often the butt of the joke.
One of the most ridiculous recipients of the Ig Nobel Prize was funded courtesy of grants from the National Institutes of Health, which, of course, is funded with federal tax dollars. About 31 billion of them, to be precise.
The Ig Nobel Anatomy Prize went to Frans de Waal and Jennifer Pokorny for their discovery that chimpanzees can identify other chimpanzees individually from seeing photographs of their rear ends.
Taxpayers may feel like a monkey's behind after they discover that the project was part of an Emory University program that has gouged taxpayers for $1.5 million since 2000.
But that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to outrageous examples of federally funded health research through the NIH.
For instance, taxpayers were bamboozled out of nearly $1.1 million to research the role of "lot lizards" (truck stop prostitutes) in spreading diseases throughout the United States.
An Arizona State study that cost Americans $49,198 hopes to improve "our understanding of the relation between alcohol use and within-session gambling behavior." In other words, American tax dollars are funding research to determine if drinking alcohol leads to losing more money while gambling.
Researchers justify the study by stating that the existing "empirical evidence documenting alcohol's influence on within-session gambling behavior is limited." Perhaps that's because there was never a doubt in anyone's mind that drinking leads to poor gambling decisions.
Other examples of ridiculous taxpayer-funded health studies include:
• $1.2 million to determine if removing the ovaries of prepubescent rabbits impacts the likelihood of sudden cardiac death.
• $726,806 to find out whether weight loss and physical activity can alleviate erectile dysfunction in obese men.
• $533,141 to learn if "warm touching" between spouses leads to better health.
• $444,112 to evaluate methods to reduce symptoms of depression in Latina mothers of children with asthma.
• $375,000 to study sleep apnea-induced hypertension in rats.
• $354,026 to develop a flight simulator for pilots which would replicate the sensation of piloting an aircraft while drunk.
• $311,528 to observe how a rat's central nervous system controls its tongue muscles.
• $180,781 to encourage Hispanic women to walk.
• $45,228 to study the immune systems of bats.
• $36,958 to encourage women with overactive bladder symptoms to consume less caffeine.
• $8,195 to determine if women who use illegal drugs admit to drinking alcohol during pregnancy.
The tax dollars consumed by NIH weren't just used to study research American's health concerns. The following examples went well beyond our borders:
• $467,474 to decrease risky sexual behavior in an attempt to prevent HIV in Uganda.
• $298,892 to reduce tobacco use in India and Indonesia.
• $124,941 to collect data about elder care services from long-term elderly care facilities in two cities in China.
• $53,419 to give cash rewards to young people in Mexico who remain free of sexually transmitted diseases.
Part of the problem is that the NIH's budget is so enormous - $31 billion annually - and they fund so many projects - currently 90,274 - that there's no realistic way to ensure that all of those tax dollars are going to good use. And, obviously, they're not.
While the mission of the NIH - to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce the burdens of illness and disability - is commendable, the way that the organization burns through tax dollars is inexcusable.
Before Congress directs another dime to the NIH, lawmakers should demand a thorough audit to figure out what grant recipients are doing with our tax dollars. The NIH has gone too long without adequate oversight to make sure the billions of dollars taken from the pockets of Americans are spent properly. Cleaning up the waste and limiting spending to only the country's most pressing health science needs - or, better yet, leaving health research to the free market - will save taxpayers billions, with no adverse impact on the health of Americans.