Sex, Massages and Taxpayer Dollars

Researchers look at random sex, attractiveness and the obvious.


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."

Tax Research? Publish or Peril

Marc Abrahams, editor of Improbable Research, an organization that tracks unusual research studies, said that with roughly 100,000 medical journals published in the United States, part of the reason there are so many studies is simply because of the way academia works.

"In order to get hired, in order to keep your job and to get promoted, you have to publish a lot of studies," Abrahams said. "There are an awful lot of studies that were done apparently because somebody needed to get some more things on their resume."

NIH recently funded a study that proudly proclaimed the benefits of a massage to athletes after exercise.

Yes, that's right, your tax dollars helped conclude that a Swedish massage -- combining long strokes, kneading and friction techniques on muscles and various movements of joints -- can make you feel better after working out.

Granted, the researchers didn't use humans for this study. Instead they used sedated rabbits. The grant is part of a larger research program at Ohio State University and officials there said they can't break out how much money from NIH went to this specific research.

Random Sex: Men More Likely

Also in the category of things scientists have spent money to determine: Men are much more likely than women to have random sexual encounters.

In a 1989 study by two state college professors, titled Gender Differences in Receptivity to Sexual Offers and published in the Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, men and women were asked to randomly approach strangers of the opposite sex on a college campus and say: "I have been noticing you around campus. I find you to be very attractive," and then invite the strangers to have sex.

Guess what? "The great majority of men were willing to have a sexual liaison with the women who approached them," the study determined. "Not one woman agreed to a sexual liaison."

Abrahams said there's some questions that people really want answered, but there "are also a lot of studies that, to me, don't seem to be done for any reason."

Referencing the random sex study, he said, "It's still hard to figure out: What did they hope to learn by this?"

But he also cautioned that just because a study seems frivolous doesn't mean that it doesn't have any merit -- it might just be hard to understand the value now. Scientists who worked on electricity, the telephone or the Internet planned and studied for years before the fruits of their labor were realized.

The rules of science dictate that even the most common sense understanding must be proved, including things that sound logical or appear to be common sense.

"People study things because they are trying to understand things they don't," Abrahams said. "There are often a lot of problems that seem trivial, unless you happen to encounter it. If you or a relative get that disease, then it becomes the most important thing in the world."

Beer Goggles Really Exist

And don't think that this is just a U.S. epidemic.

Across the pond in Great Britain -- home to roughly 58,000 pubs -- a researcher just published a study that determined that, when drunk, women find men more attractive.

Marcus Munafo, a researcher in experimental psychology at the University of Bristol in England, funded his study through a $60,000 grant from the Alcohol Education and Research and Council, a group founded by the British Parliament.

Munafo concluded that with just a little bit of alcohol consumed in a short period of time, people find others roughly 10 percent more attractive than when they are sober.

The results of the study indicate that as little as a large glass of wine or a pint-and-a-half of beer is enough to make the girl or guy sitting on the bar stool next to you appear more attractive than you might otherwise think.

Munafo said the research is part of a wider program of studies looking at how alcohol modifies face perception and "cost almost nothing." He said his research is really focused on the behaviors that are more common after drinking, such as unsafe sex or violence.

"Our hypothesis," he said, "is that this might in part be because we begin to process emotional cues in faces differently after we've consumed alcohol."