On Sunday and Monday of this week, we published a series examining 12 years of spending at one of the centers at the National Institutes of Health -- the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, also known as NCCAM.
Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa takes credit for creating NCCAM and, over the years, it has spent about $1.4 billion in taxpayer dollars -- about $1.2 billion of it on research, according to the center.
We wondered what that money was spent on, and whether it was a good investment. You can read our findings on that here.
We also highlighted one of the larger studies funded by NCCAM, in partnership with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, and that story is here.
Examining the work of an NIH center over 12 years would have been a nearly-impossible challenge in the pre-Internet era. But today, it’s much easier thanks to the NIH itself, which offers a treasure trove of information online on its excellent website, NIH RePORT.
This website was invaluable to us in reporting the story, and is a great place to spend a few hours for anybody curious about what the NIH does with its $30 billion a year. A basic guide to the site, which is expansive, can be found here.
One of the more useful parts of the website is NIH RePORTER, a searchable database of grants made by the various centers and institutes within the NIH. While not entirely complete, RePORTER offers a sense of how much is being spent on what, which universities are big winners in the competition for NIH money, etc.
For some grants, there are even links to relevant scientific papers. Create a username and passcode and you can save past searches and export data into spreadsheets – a great way to sort and sift through the data. You can find NIH RePORTER here.
It is hard to imagine how we could have done this story 30 years ago. We would have had to write to the NIH and ask for documents on grants over a decade or more, plus strategic plans, meeting minutes, budget documents, a gargantuan task for them -- and for us to sort through. The cost would have been enormous. Without computer databases, we would have had to keep track of everything on paper, a massive organizational challenge.
The NIH budget has ballooned in the last 30 years, but our ability to examine how that money is being spent has gotten much easier. And that can only be a good thing as we enter an era of contracting budgets.
What should we be spending taxpayer funds on? What isn’t worth the money? It’s a debate that is made possible by these tools.
-- email@example.com">Trine Tsouderos
Join Trib Nation on Facebook for more of the how and why of Tribune journalism.