Corruption is contagious: just ask the former US Health and Human Services Secretary

This week, as Caribbean Islands including Puerto Rico are struggling from the horrific effects of Hurricane Maria, as running water and electricity have all but disappeared, and as the first rumors of possible cholera have emerged from the rubble, America’s rich spoiled brat took to the airwaves to criticize those “Sons of bitches” who dared to kneel in protest against discrimination. In the meantime, as the spoiled brat flew off to one of his fancy golf clubs, he took time to attack the Mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, describing her, in his classic misogynist manner, as “nasty,” eerily as he did to Hilary Clinton.

We seem to flounder from crisis to crisis in this country, hanging by a presidential tweet, with our tolerance for disgust being continuously immunized with every passing day. The president seems to be that blind squirrel, but one who never manages to find an occasional nut. Or the dog, who is always on the wrong side of the door. Is there any issue that he ever manages to come out looking like a leader, one who has empathy for anything other than his own ego? Well, there’s a rhetorical question.

Underscoring all this “winning” (perhaps he meant whining?) that the president promised the country (you’ll get tired of all the winning, believe me!) the country is being run by a cluster of fellow rich spoiled brat millionaires and billionaires, none of whom seem to understand that rules apply to them, and that they are supposed to be looking out for the good of the country. Not their own egos and comfort. But of course, corruption and spoiled-brattedness (yes, I just coined a new phrase) are contagious. And an infected president has infected his cabinet and inner circle.

Yesterday, the American Health and Human Services Secretary, Tom Price, resigned (or more accurately, was forced to resign). Price, who just loved to talk about his commitment to the American taxpayer and the terrible waste flying in private jets  resigned in the wake of a scandal uncovered in a series of articles by diligent Politico reporters Dan Diamond and Rachana Pradhan about—you guessed it: wasting taxpayers money by flying on private jets .

Price took at least 24 chartered jets across the US, including a ~$25,000 return flight between DC and Philadelphia, which would have cost about $72 for a return Acela fast-train and would most likely have delivered Price more quickly to his destinations. All in all, including the chartering of military jets for overseas flights that he could have flown commercially for a mere fraction of the cost, Price racked up around $1,000,000 in costs just since March/April! He should be proud—that’s probably record government waste, for Mr. Fiscal-Responsibility.

What is especially alarming is the context of the waste, as James Hohmann of the Washington Post points out. Before his fortunate early forced retirement, Price was a big proponent of cutting research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by almost 20% in 2018, noting that the research is not efficient enough (wasteful?). Sure—it pales with the need for private jets! Just for some personal context, the average NIH grant, which has not increased in its amount over the last 20 years, is at about $1,000,000 in direct costs to the research lab over a 4-5 year period. That keeps a principal investigator, several graduate students, a technician and perhaps a postdoctoral fellow employed and active in basic and clinical research, all of which lead to improved health and economic growth. By contrast, what does the American public gain from a private jet flight by the Health and Human Services Secretary between DC and Philadelphia? Go figure…

More context: The history of the discovery of CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing is long and convoluted, and it is not my intention to wade into the controversy over patents and who first made the crucial discoveries. Suffice to say that after fundamental findings probably dating back to the mid-1990s, over a brief period of time beginning around 2012, several investigators (most prominent among them Doudna  and Zhang , recognized and developed the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing system as a method that could be used to edit genes in human cells. A mere 4 years later, an article in the New Scientist reports on more than 20 clinical trial involving technology derived from the CRISPR/Cas9 technology . Indeed, the online NIH Reporter tool shows that Dr. Zhang is funded for ~$1,095,702 for a grant focused on CRISPR/Cas9 technology. Dr. Doudna is listed as also funded for a grant-center at about $2,000,000 to study this technology. And what was the contribution of the leader of the NIH and former Health and Human Services Secretary Price? Wasting a million dollars that could have gone to brilliant and hard-working researchers to support health and advance science.

Fortunately, the arrogant Health Secretary has now been dismissed. But I seriously doubt that his replacement, if not already infected by the contagious corruption of the Trump-swamp, will be able to hold his/her head above the stinky waters for long, especially as the president has opened the dams of the sewage reservoir.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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