The NBC Investigative Unit has raised questions about two grants totaling nearly $1.5 million dollars distributed to the University of California San Francisco. The money was part of the federal stimulus program and went to studies into the erectile dysfunction of overweight middle aged men and the accurate reporting of someone's sexual history.
This is part of our ongoing series of investigations by the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit into who received federal stimulus dollars, and why some projects did not break ground more than two years after receiving the grant.
The Investigative Unit looked closely at the federal government's decision to spend nearly $1.5 million dollars of taxpayer money, money that came to California. Grant number 1R01HD056950-01A2 was among the thousands of grants funded, receiving $1.2 million dollars. This grant studied how to improve the accuracy of how people responded to questions about their sexual history.
"If you honestly report on your sexual activity and number of partners?" Scott Amey with asked with a sigh. "That's a good one."
Amey is the general council for POGO, the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington D.C., nonpartisan, non-profit government watchdog group. During our interview with an NBC crew he tried to explain why the government used so much tax money to improve self-reports about high-risk sexual behavior.
"I don't think most tax payers would think that would be a justified spending of stimulus money to conduct a sex study over fixing bridges and roads that are crumbling every day," Amey added.
NBC Bay Area talked to the University of California at San Francisco, the institution that received the grant. "Does it make you wonder a little bit, stimulus money for a study like this?" Kovaleski asked Jeff Sheehy, who works at the UCSF Aids Research Center. "No it doesn't," he answered. "Because to my mind we save money if we get better health outcomes."
According to the grant, a good portion of the study will "improve the accuracy of responses to questions," specifically questions about a person's sexual behavior.
"Playing devil's advocate," Kovaleski said to Sheehy, "Do taxpayers need to spend $1.2 million dollars to figure this out?"
"The judgment wasn't one that I was asked," Sheehy replied.
The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit discovered that for $1.2 million dollars, taxpayers funded a study that included 200 videotaped interviews at $6,000 per interview.
Kovaleski asked Sheehy to justify the spending.
"I think the average person is going to look at $1.2 million dollars to interview 200 people and say, "Wow!' " Sheehy said, defending the study. "I understand people could look at it and have issues but this is research."
Kovaleski then asked about jobs. "How many jobs did this $1.26 million dollars create?"
"Well I can't really say," Sheehy said. "There were 11 researchers hired on the job, two consultants. Well I can't say. This has not been evaluated for job creation."
The number Sheehy quoted during an interview with NBC Bay Area did not match information on recovery.gov, the government's website for stimulus funds. According to the site, the grant produced 0.85 jobs.
"It does make you scratch your head and wonder," Amey said. "Wait a second, taxpayer dollars went to a sex study that barely funded less than one person?"
Amey was also left questioning another UCSF grant.
When asked by an NBC reporter about a study into erectile dysfunction involving overweight middle aged men he replied, "Oh boy."
The grant totaled more than a quarter million dollars. Although UCSF was willing to discuss our questions about the sexual history grant, the university declined to provide an expert to talk with the NBC Investigative Unit about the erectile dysfunction grant. In a written statement provided, university officials said in part, "Obesity related health issues currently cost $147 billion per year in direct medical costs in the United States..... Health providers therefore continue to search for incentives to encourage people to live a healthier lifestyle, to benefit both indviduals and society.... Preliminary analysis indicates that is is feasible to enroll men in this type of research, they successfully lose the expected weight over a 12-week period, and they see an improvement in ED symptoms." You can read the entire statement by clicking here.
If you have any other examples of questionable stimulus spending, we want to know. Call us at 1-888-996-TIPS (8477) or email firstname.lastname@example.org