As the national debt
approaches $17 trillion—that’s about $50,000 per citizen—how do you feel about the government’s spending tax dollars on public relations?
Amid the fiscal constraints of sequestration, the National Cancer Institute (NCI), which is part of National Institutes of Health (NIH), recently found itself in a bind over its PR spending.
According to an O’Dwyer’s report, "House to Probe NIH PR Spending
"Two House committees have kicked off an investigation into PR spending at the National Cancer Institute after an editorial in the respected journal Nature questioned spending in the NCI’s office of communications."
How much does NCI spend on public relations?
The actual editorial in Nature
, which is simply titled "Cancer costs
", the NCI spent $45 million or “almost double what the US Food and Drug Administration spent on communications, including drug and food safety announcements.” The editorial, which cites a cancer research bulletin, goes on to say, “As The Cancer Letter
has pointed out, the OCE’s 2012 allotment would cover more than 100 coveted R01 research grants.”
According to the NIH’s website
, an Ro1 research grant is defined as:
"The Research Project (R01) grant is an award made to support a discrete, specified, circumscribed project to be performed by the named investigator(s) in an area representing the investigator’s specific interest and competencies, based on the mission of the NIH."
Think small grants to motivated researchers with a good idea.
NIH serves an important purpose—and I have little doubt the value of communicating their work—it would be farcical to perform research and form conclusions, but not share them. However, there’s also a rational question: What are we taxpayers getting for that $45 million? That’s precisely the focus of the congressional inquiry.
The government spends quite a bit of money on PR: NASA spent about $18 million on PR
efforts for its Mars Rover mission last year, just before tax season in 2012, the IRS issued a $15 million RFP for public relations
, and in any given week we can find numerous RFPs across federal, state, and municipal governments. For example, Nebraska Reviews Tourism PR.
Gee, $45 million + $18 million + $15 million add up quickly, and that’s just three agencies—there are hundreds of agencies in the U.S. Government
When is it appropriate for the government to spend on communications? Is there a difference between spending to inform and spending to persuade? How clear is that distinction?
“Don’t text and drive” campaigns seem to be appropriate public safety messages, but how about more controversial topics like Weber Shandwick’s tag for the Affordable Care Act
is careful to note, “Weber Shandwick’s contract is limited to work on the rollout of Obamacare and it’s not likely the agency will be involved in defending the administration in the latest dustup over Obamacare.”
Like it or not, the 2,000+-page Affordable Care Act
is now law. Should not laws be communicated?
Every few years government spending on PR surfaces as a debate. Academics discuss the Gillett Amendment
, pundits on both sides of the aisle chafe at the spending, and now and again an inspector general issues a report
, but we never really answer the question.
With respect to the NCI—mind you, I’m a PR pro who lost my father to brain cancer
—$45 million seems to me, if not to the prestigious journal Nature
, excessive vis-a-vis
100 research grants that might produce a cure.
Do we share what research we have in hopes of finding a cure, or do we invest in research that might find a cure that never gets shared? Are these mutually elusive or is there middle ground?
Frank Strong blogs at the Sword & the Script, where a version of this post first appeared.