Sex, Massages and Taxpayer Dollars

Researchers look at random sex, attractiveness and the obvious.

ByABC News
August 19, 2008, 3:28 PM

Aug. 20, 2008 — -- If you had $147,000 to spend on scientific research, would you rather try to find a cure for cancer or see whether women get sexually aroused while watching pornography?

Or how about this: How much would you spend to learn whether men or women are more likely to sleep with a stranger?

Or maybe you want to learn whether athlete's muscles feel more relaxed after getting a massage. Seems kind of obvious, right?

Each of those questions has been studied by academics, and in most cases taxpayers have foot the bill, sometimes to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.

"Oftentimes academic researchers will get government grants to do things that you've got to wonder: Why are they doing that?" said Merrill Goozner, director of the integrity in science project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "There's plenty of research out there that doesn't need to be done, and why somebody funds it is one of the great mysteries of life."

Porn Sexually Arouses Women

The National Institutes of Health has an annual budget of $29.5 billion. The overwhelming majority of that money goes out in grants to researchers around the country and funds the agency's internal research.

The average amount awarded in research grants last year was $403,528. Most grants tend to cover broad research topics, making it difficult to zero in on the cost of a specific paper or study.

Still, these studies occasionally raise a few politicians' eyebrows.

A few years ago, NIH gave a $147,000 grant to a Northwestern University psychology professor who was paying women to view pornography while a device measured their sexual responses.

That study didn't go over too well in the halls of Congress.

Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake was among 20 Republicans to sign a letter to NIH's director asking for an explanation for why taxpayer money was going for such a study. They called it "a bizarre spending decision."

Today, Flake believes Congress has failed to properly oversee NIH and its spending.

"It's Congress' job to set guidelines for how NIH and other agencies spend taxpayer money and then exercise oversight to ensure that those guidelines are being followed. "However, over the last several years, Congress has neglected its oversight function," Flake's office told ABC News. "It's difficult for Congress to criticize NIH for wasteful grants when Congress itself is earmarking billions of dollars every year on similarly wasteful pet projects."

A spokesman for NIH declined to comment about studies that some consider a waste of tax dollars.

While discovering whether porn arouses women may not seem to warrant a hefty price tag, Goozner points out that you never know when something seemingly silly could lead to the next miracle discovery.

"Certainly, some of these questions are more significant than they are made to appear when they're poked fun at," he said.

Any outrage over government-funded research, from both Congress and watchdogs, tends to focus on industry-financed research, he said.

"Industry funds a lot of research that often helps its bottom line. That shouldn't surprise anyone," Goozner said.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, has criticized NIH and the way the agency handles its grants. Grassley recently said the agency failed to oversee conflicts of interest in its grants. Many of those grant recipients also get money from drug companies. Grassley has accused NIH of not doing a proper job of requiring all of its grant recipients to also disclose their other funding sources.

Grassley's office declined comment for this story, but in a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee, the senator wrote, "Researchers need to be put on notice that government grants come with obligations of financial disclosure."