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The Cancer Letter Inc.
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publication date: Mar 1, 2013

NCI’s spending on public relations dramatically exceeds that of any other NIH institute or center, data obtained by The Cancer Letter under the Freedom of Information Act show.

The cancer institute spent $44.9 million on PR in fiscal 2012, employing 83.5 full-time staff members—FTEs in governmentspeak—to conduct various educational and outreach work at the Office of Communications and Education.

This number of FTEs is more than fourfold the PR workforce of the NIH Office of the Director. Yet, the NCI office also has 77 contract employees, some of them working part-time (The Cancer Letter, Dec. 7, 2012). The next largest PR office at NIH—the NIH The Office of the Director has 19.5 FTEs and no contract employees.

Documents show that, cumulatively, NCI has spent $381.2 million on its PR operations between 2006, the year OCE was formed, and 2012. None of this spending was subjected to peer review.

This level of spending—and the absence of outside scientific oversight—places the institute’s PR into the same range as the now defunct caBIG bioinformatics program, which spent about $350 million over eight years, before encountering scrutiny by NCI advisors in 2011 (The Cancer Letter, March 18, 2011).

The NCI bioinformatics program was trimmed to about $33 million in 2012, and is now about $12 million lower than OCE. In another common element, OCE and caBIG have relied heavily on consulting firms, awarding multi-million-dollar contracts for projects that exceeded the capabilities of government employees.

NCI Director Harold Varmus has been trying to cut back many of the pet projects he inherited from his predecessors. Having chopped down caBIG, he appears to have focused on the institute’s PR operations. For this purpose, Varmus has revived a subcommittee of the National Cancer Advisory Board to review this vast enterprise. (The Cancer Letter, Dec. 7, 2012).

The NCAB subcommittee, which hasn’t met since 2008, now promises to complete a report for the June 25 meeting of NCAB. NCI is in a rush to make the cuts in order to carve out money for research at a time of unprecedented fiscal pressure exacerbated by the looming threat of sequestration, which at this writing is scheduled to start March 1.

The National Cancer Act of 1971 mandates NCI to conduct educational activities aimed at doctors and the public, and for a quarter of a century no one raised questions about adequacy of the institute’s modest PR shop.

Explosive growth of the institute’s PR functions appeared to have occurred in the late 1990s.

NIH institutes and centers don’t categorize or track PR and educational activities in a uniform manner. However, it is clear that other NIH institutes have significantly smaller PR operations than NCI:

• The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which runs HIV/AIDS research programs, has 18 FTEs working in PR, NIH documents show.

• The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute has eight FTEs.

• The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases has seven.

NCI’s spending on PR is nearly double that of the FDA’s, an agency with a vast regulatory portfolio and a life-and-death need to reach the American public.

At FDA, the Office of External Affairs, which supports the entire agency, has an annual budget of less than $12 million. Its Center for Drug Evaluation and Research’s Office of Communications has the budget of just over $13 million, which covers both salaries and operations.

These FDA offices are responsible for running consumer education, outreach to consumers and health care professionals, website and social media, internal communications, and drug safety announcements. These activities cover all of medicine, as well as food and tobacco.


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