Concerns Raised About Overlapping Autism Research
Most federally-funded autism research is “potentially duplicative,” according to a new government report that finds coordination and oversight lacking.
No less than 12 federal agencies allocated $1.4 billion for autism research, awareness projects, trainings and other related activities between 2008 and 2012. In many cases, however, the efforts of these agencies may have overlapped.
In a report released this week, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that 84 percent of autism research projects during the four-year period had the potential to be redundant.
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The finding was based on a review of how projects aligned with goals identified in a strategic plan outlining priorities for federal autism research. The plan is produced annually by the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, or IACC, a federal advisory panel comprised of government officials and members of the autism community.
In one case, the GAO found that five agencies funded 20 projects all focusing on improving dissemination and implementation of interventions and services in diverse community settings. Collectively, the projects cost over $15 million.
Separately, investigators said that four agencies funded projects to develop interventions to improve the quality of life or health outcomes of adults on the spectrum.
While acknowledging that seemingly-overlapping studies can be beneficial and appropriate in some cases, the GAO warned in its 94-page report that “in some instances, funding similar research may lead to unnecessary duplication.”
At the same time, the investigative arm of Congress also found that there’s little oversight to ensure that waste does not occur. The Combatting Autism Act tasks the IACC with monitoring all federal autism activities, but such efforts from the committee were “limited,” the GAO report said.
Only three government agencies regularly used the IACC’s strategic plan. And, the GAO found that outside of participation in the IACC, agencies rarely coordinated their work.
The GAO recommended in its report that agencies enhance their coordination efforts and make other improvements.
Most agencies agreed that they could do more to work together, but disputed that any unreasonable duplication is occurring.
“The IACC objectives are broad and projects classified under them cannot be fairly judged ‘potentially duplicative’ without more substantial exposition,” wrote Michael Yudin from the U.S. Department of Education in response to the GAO. “Research projects with similar descriptors or titles may have different subject populations, sample sizes, methodologies and outcome measures and may explore different mechanisms or hypotheses.”
Sharing similar sentiments, a response submitted by Jim Esquea at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicated that “it is important to recognize the difference between appropriately addressing complex problems using multiple strategies and funding redundant or duplicative projects.”
“We do not believe that research is necessarily duplicative if two agencies fund the same broad objective in the IACC strategic plan,” Esquea wrote.