Skip navigation

Calls to Action

Feds Grilled On Autism Research Spending, Priorities

May 20, 2014

WASHINGTON, DC (May 20, 2014) -- A House committee closely questioned federal officials today about the prioritization of genetic over environmental research on autism, as well as the controls in place to assure research dollars are spent most effectively. Members from both parties of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, however, made clear they were not interested in cutting federal funding for autism research.

Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL), left, cited criticism from Sallie Bernard, president of SafeMinds and an Autism Speaks board member, that genetic studies over the past five years have been funded at five times the level recommended by the Interagency Autism Coordinating Council (IACC), while environmental studies have been funded at just 20 percent of their recommended level. IACC was created to coordinate autism research undertaken by various federal agencies.

See video of the hearing below

"By ignoring the environmental component to autism, the government and scientific community have made a massive strategic error, wasting enormous amounts of money and time in mostly fruitless genetics-only research that has not helped us stop new cases of autism or helped people living with severe autism," Posey quoted Bernard.

IACC Chair Tom Insel, right, who heads the National Institute of Mental Health, said the funding comparison was somewhat misleading as more than half of genomic research in fact involved studies exploring genetic-environmental linkages. Insel said lung cancer and asthma are two diseases strongly influenced by environmental factors, yet much of the research is genomic which delivers "faster, better results."

Posey also renewed a plea for a "credible, transparent study" into linkages between vaccines and autism. "I have talked to hundreds of mothers who said my child, usually a boy, was absolutely perfectly normal until the day after he got his vaccinations," Posey said.

"There has been an enormous amount of focus on this subject over a period of time," Insel said. "Another meta-analysis came out today of 10 studies and again comes up empty handed."

The bulk of the hearing focused on a General Accounting Office (GAO) report issued last November that concluded that 84 percent of the 1,206 autism research projects funded by the federal government between 2008 and 2012 "had the potential to be duplicative." Under intense questioning by Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-VA), Marcia Crosse, the GAO's health director, emphasized that the finding only cited a "potential" for duplication, rather than actual duplication in research.

 "We did not say the dollars spent on autism research were wasteful," Crosse said.

Connolly (D-VA) blasted the GAO report as irresponsible. 

"84 percent is a pretty explosive charge, it plays into a narrative in (Congress) that could affect legitimate research," he said. "I'm really bothered by this report because I believe it plays into the wrong narrative, particularly when something as important as autism research is involved."

Rep. John Mica (R-FL), who chaired the hearing, said fears of cutting autism funding were misplaced.

"I don't want anyone to think this hearing was organized to cut funding for autism," Mica said. "We want every dollar to be used as effectively as possible. This isn’t an attempt to cut funds or do away with research that is needed."