AURORA, Colo. - Despite huge federal deficits, the National Institutes of Health gave millions to Colorado researchers to produce YouTube videos warning children about UV exposure and social media to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. But researchers could not show long-term tangible benefits from the projects, a CALL7 Investigation found.
Pete Sepp, spokesman for the government spending watchdog group, the National Taxpayers Union, said grants often just result in the spending of even more tax money.
"Will we see another 5 year study to justify another 5 year study after that?” he said. “The process could just go on and on.”
CALL7 Investigators reviewed all NIH grants provided to Colorado researchers in the past three years – trying to determine the tangible benefits of the research.
Researchers that 7News interviewed either provided short-term results from the work or said they would need more tax money to determine if their research translated into effective preventive programs.
University of Colorado Professor Lori Crane led a project using a $660,000 federal NIH grant money to produce 11 short YouTube videos to dissuade youths from tanning to help prevent skin cancer. At first, Crane planned for the videos to go viral but then decided to show them to students in small groups.
“What we found in our project was the more effective way to deliver the videos is in a group setting, in which there was a discussion about the videos and what the videos are, and how kids can translate that in their own daily lives,” she told CALL7 Investigator Keli Rabon.
Crane said about 300 students saw the videos over two weeks last spring, but she said it would take another $2 million study to determine if the videos prompted young people to stay out of the sun or tanning booth.
“Obviously we can't see a big change in that time, but we saw a statistically significant change in these kids after seeing that video,” she said. “To really know how effective something like this is going to be, we'd want to do a long-term follow up of kids, and we do have another grant that we have submitted. If it's funded, we will have three years of exposure to a similar type of program.”
The NIH also granted CU Professor Sheana Bull $1.1 million to determine if text messaging can prevent HIV in young adults. Bull received an additional $3.2 million over nine years to see if social media could reduce sexually transmitted diseases -- launching a MySpace page in 2007.
“Our desire was to meet youth where they are with messages about prevention and safer sexual health,” she said.
Three years into the STD study, Bull realized young people were migrating to Facebook.
“MySpace lost a lot of market share right around that time period,” she said. “And they were also not paying attention to messages the way that we had originally planned to send them.”
But a CALL7 review of the Facebook page shows most of the people commenting on the site are researchers or grad student working on the project – not the intended audience of young people.
Bull points out her research showed a 12 percent increase in program participants using condoms during sex. But her research also showed any increase in condom use went away after six months.
Bull also spent $500,000 on a second NIH project, text messaging participants about safe sex.
“We said things like 'It's too soon to be a daddy,’” Bull said about the texts sent out. “‘You want to be focused on the best job you can get.’ 'Stay in school, make sure you don't get your girlfriend pregnant.’”
But Bull said she will also need additional dollars to determine if there was a results for the text messaging program.
“Now we want to answer the question 'how well does it work?'” Bull said. “And then once we answer that question, we can demonstrate the cost effectiveness.”
But Sepp said the problem is there is no requirement to determine the benefits of the original research.
“The fact is, all research, even basic research, has to end and have some kind of result or purpose,” Sepp said. “Otherwise there will never be any application to society that taxpayers can say 'gee, we got a good value for this.'”
But the CU researchers maintain their work is worthwhile.
“Do you think this was an effective use of taxpayer dollars?" Rabon asked.
“Absolutely,” Bull said.
Despite repeated requests, the NIH declined to go on camera to justify the spending of millions of tax dollars.