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Monday, March 12, 2018

The Manhattan Project of Nutrition That Wasn't



With publication of the results of the second of the "Original 3" NuSI funded studies, I'm finally getting around to publishing up this post (and perhaps a second one shortly) regarding the Nutrition Science Initiative (NuSI), founded in 2012 by Peter Attia, MD and "science journalist" Gary Taubes. Bottom line ... for NuSI, it was "all over but the crying" a couple of years ago now. 









The founding of this "non-profit" was met with much pomp and circumstance, and cheerleading along the way, some of which (likely repeats of previously blogged on material!) I've included at the end of this post.


This post, however, will focus on NuSI's publicly available tax filings as they relate to this idea that NuSI was some sort of "Manhattan Project" of nutrition.  The label ostensibly draws on three parallels with the actual Manhattan Project
  • Collaborative effort of "the best" scientists, to ...
  • Accomplish something that had never been done before with a sense of urgency, while ...
  • Maximizing the proportion of the available funding applied to "direct costs" (not exactly what happened with the real MP, but it's the popular interpretation).
That last bullet point has somewhat taken on a life of its own, but let's roll with the idea that a "Manhattan Project" is ultimately code for a "financially lean" grand project.  To this end, here is the (long disappeared from the website) initial statement by NuSI's founding President, Peter Attia MD:





NuSI funded three studies from the roughy $40 million initial grant commitment from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.
  1. Energy Balance Consortium, led by Kevin Hall
  2. Stanford University Study, led by Christopher Gardner
  3. Boston Children's Hospital Study, led by David Ludwig
As it turns out, each of these studies had other funding sources, and in the case of #2 expanded a study already underway.  There was nothing novel about #3 as the study design is very similar to a 2012 published study by the same research group.   Sometime in mid-to-late 2013, NuSI's "work" there, aside from communicating the results to the public, was done.  These were to be initial studies, just the start.  In 2014, we were told the start of something hopefully much bigger -- almost $200 million dollars bigger.  This never materialized.

It is important to remember that NuSI was supposed to be nothing more than a facilitator -- a middle-man between LJAF and researchers.  NuSI's role was to gather the great minds "under one virtual roof".  They were not supposed to be involved in any aspect of the actual research.  


(... remember, NuSI doesn’t do the experiments, NuSI funds and facilitates the teams who do the experiments.                     

 ~Peter Attia, December 2014
Based on public statements from Taubes, Attia and some of the researchers involved, we know that there was some meddling in design and interpretation, but in the end, NuSI didn't 
  • Build research facilities
  • Desig studies, procure appropriate clearances (e.g. IRB) and registrations (e.g. ClinicalTrials.gov), recruit, screen, compensate, etc. any subjects,  etc.
  • Purchase and/or house scientific equipment
  • Payroll any researchers, techs or contract outside labs, etc.
Much hullabaloo was made over Peter Attia setting up an office in San Diego.  NuSI was going to change the world.  But the fact remains that whatever "work" there was to be done by NuSI in the initial three studies, it was mostly done in calendar year 2013. 


As 2016 got underway, we learned that without ANY fanfare or formal announcement, founder and President Peter Attia had exited NuSI in December of 2015.  There was NO mention of this monumental change in the organization on the NuSI website, nor has there been since.




This from an organization that boasted the following graphic regarding their communications strategy:


The same organization that can't even manage to maintain a reasonably active Twitter account.  @NuSIorg has only 35 tweets, and NONE mentioning key occurrences including Attia's departure as President, Ochner's short lived stint as President in 2016, or the promotion of Eckstrand to the current position of President.  Neither has the organization used this simple (free!) social media outlet to communicate that *the results are in!* from two of their "ground breaking" studies!!!  (Similar silence on Facebook)



So here we are in 2018, and the results of the second of the NuSI funded studies are out. The "word" was not good.  The official @NuSIorg response? Silence. This, as they say, speaks volumes.  Remember ...

"We then communicate the results to all audiences.
Everyone deserves the truth"

(original NuSI.org website front page)

Fast foward a few years, and it has since "leaked" out in various interviews and podcasts that NuSI had its funding cut on the heels of the "disappointing" results of the Hall-led Energy Balance Consortium study.  I can only speculate, but I'm sure a huge factor in Attia's exit was cutting his losses and extricating himself from what could only become a public embarrassment moving forward.  Not only had he failed to secure any significant funding from other backers, but now the only benefactor was rescinding some of their promised funding.  This can be verified by looking at the LJAF website.  In 2013, the $35.5 million grant commitment was announced, on top of $4.7 million in seed funding.  These grants appeared on their website under the "Research Integrity" category as shown below.  Sometime in 2015, the separate NAFLD study was added, and then (the LJAF site lags and only updates quarterly) you can see final dollar figure and end year for the main grant with a smaller separate grant to "keep the doors open" while ongoing research winds up (or should we say down?)
Original funding on left, current itemization on right.  Click images to enlarge.

In the process of writing up my own response to the results of that Gardner-led study, I exhumed this current post from the early 2017 draft pile.  In heading over to Guidestar.org for links to the original IRS Non-Profit Form 990s I noticed that NuSI had filed for 2016 in my absence.  So I updated the spreadsheet that I had compiled a year ago to include this tax year.  In going through this again, I must admit that it makes me sick to my stomach.  

For starters:  There is NO philanthropy here.   NONE 

NuSI embodies just about everything that is wrong with the concept of the 501(c)3 "Non-Profit".  Sure, as an organization, NuSI "corporation" did not profit.  But there was rampant personal enrichment associated with this endeavor.   This under a cloak of public accountability via releasing Form 990s, where there is seemingly no accountability for the actual allocation of funds.

Essentially NuSI took money from LJAF and doled it out to a few research facilities and technology companies to fund a total of 4 studies.  At the end of 2016, they have a spare million-&-a-half-or-so lying around what Gary Taubes has described as an organization basically limping along into obscurity as a largely volunteer operation!


NuSI's Tax Filings  


*** Note:  I created my summary spreadsheet using publicly available Form 990s for tax years 2012 through 2016.  I am sharing images of select versions/sections here.  I have checked the accuracy of the values in my spreadsheet to the best of my abilities.  The original 990s are available HERE (request access) or you can email me:  carbsane at gmail.  That is the email for any further inquiries regarding the data.  Thank you! ***

All non-profits are required to make their income tax filings available to the public.  Organizations such as Guidestar.org make these available to the public on their website.  Currently only the most recent three filings are available at this site, but the full record is available (and I among many have saved them).  I summarized the Form 990 data from years 2012 through 2016 and totalled things up for both Attia's tenure (through 2015) and the full five years for which records are currently available.  Additionally each expense on the Form 990 is separately allocated to one of three categories:  Program Services, Management & General, and Fundraising, so I have this totalled up as well.


  • Total Revenues highlight and emphasize the fact that NuSI is an almost completely LJAF funded entity
  • Research Grants total less than two-thirds of total expenditures for either summary period (61% and 63% for 2015 and 2016 totals respectively)
  • Salaries total roughly 25% of total expenditures! (2015:  26%, 2016:  25%)
  • Roughly 10% of total expenditures were attributed to fundraising activities!  (2015:  11%, 2016:  9%)
Think about this!  In 2012-13, the LJAF had already committed to "up to $39.7 million" on top of a 3.6 million dollar seed grant.  Of the funds obtained and spent in the operation of NuSI, a "Manhattan Project's-worth" of 10% was spent in a spectacularly FAILED attempt to raise additional funds.

Almost a full 25% went into compensation and personnel related expenses to staff this endeavor.  Let's look a little more closely at that, shall we?


Forget percentages for just one moment.
  • NuSI spent close to 7 MILLION DOLLARS to staff a non-profit that did virtually nothing in-and-of itself!
This is something that no for-profit entity could ever justify to shareholders!  Now let's focus on a few of the main players, starting with Peter Attia, MD.
  • Peter Attia was paid a 4-year total of 1.7 million dollars.  He claimed the following hours/week (not shown) on the Form 990:  2012: 40 hr/wk, 2013: 75 hr/wk,  2014 & 2015: 60 hr/wk.  
  • Even if Attia did every last bit of work for NuSI, and affording a very generous 6 weeks/year vacation, this US taxpayer has to ask:  What did Peter Attia do for the almost 10,000 hours this would amount to?????  
By all indications, once 2015 came around, you could pretty much stick a fork in NuSI.  The 2014 goals of amassing funding near $200 million were apparently a bust.  They were seemingly unable to even raise the $1 million dollars for the NAFLD study independently of LJAF.  This despite an independent last-ditch attempt to help by Tim Ferriss, complete with Manhattan Project romanticism ...

NuSI–has been called the “Manhattan Project of nutrition.” They are run like a lean startup, and I’m proud to be a part of their advisory board. 

~Tim Ferriss, December 2014

... and a generous offer to match contributions up to $200K ($50K from Ferriss, $150K from anonymous reader).  With this in mind,

  • Attia supposedly scaled back hours from a credulity-challenging 75 per week in 2013, to a still-highly-suspect 60 per week.   
  • He exited NuSI receiving (some might say "made off with")  almost three-quarters of a million dollars in that last year!  
  • Attia's $727K 2015 salary was more than twice that of the (or any) previous year!
And then there's his partner in crime, Gary Taubes.  What did Gary Taubes do for the over 8,000 hours he claims to have logged over 5 years (40 hrs/wk each year) ?   
  • Taubes was compensated $586K over 5 years.  This REALLY puts Attia's last year's take in perspective!
  • Between the two founders, the pair profited personally to the tune of almost $2.3 Million.
Some bottom line 5 year totals:
  • $2,464,256 on Gary Taubes, Peter Attia, and his 2016 replacement as President (Eckstrand)
  • Grants from NuSI for scientific research totaled $18,027,974.
  • Compensation for Co-founder & Presidents alone totalled 12% of the total of these salaries and grants made.
Whether one looks at these absolute values or the percentages, even alone they are astounding.  Even if Taubes and Attia did ALL the work of NuSI, one would be hard pressed to justify such compensations.  Mind boggling doesn't even begin to describe this.  And yet, there was an additional almost $4.5 million spent on employees alone!  Questions like these come to mind:
  • What exactly did Stacie Spector do for 40 hrs/wk in 2013 & 15, and 50 hrs/wk in 2014 as VP of Strategy?  Does it justify over one-half million dollars in compensation?
  • What did (long-time friend of Taubes) Mark Friedman do as Director of Research, (hired mid-2014!) do to justify almost one-half million dollars in compensation?   
Between these two right there, you have funding for that NAFLD study.  
  • What "Operations" did Lacey Stenson direct from 2013-2015 to justify over $400K in compensation?
  • What "Development" occurred in 2014 to justify over one-quarter million in compensation for Kira Baccari?   She supposedly put in 50 hours per week.  Really?  Doing what exactly??
Speaking of 2014,
  • Spector, Stenson & Baccari put in 50 hours per week, Friedman 40, Taubes 40, and Attia an unfathomable 60 hours per week.   
  • Compensation for these six totalled $1,358,765  (there was an additional $573K compensation to others not included in this figure) ... and yet ...

  • In December of 2014, NuSI had to rely on Tim Ferriss' appeal to "the masses" to scrounge up the $1 million needed to fund their NAFLD study.  (A campaign that ultimately failed if the LJAF grant is any indication, and an appeal -- it bears repeating! -- where Ferriss flat out lied to his readers about NuSI being run like a "lean startup".)
  • Were they still trying to save the ship in 2015?  Attia at 60, Stenson at 50, and Taubes, Spector, Friedman & Eckstrand at 40 hrs per week, totalling $1.5 million?!!?!!

But WAIT!  There's MORE!!!  Another 3.3 Million on "Other Expenses" over the 5 years.






PERSPECTIVE:


The LJAF has their own VP of Research, Stuart Buck.   According to Gary Taubes himself, in 2012 "NuSI and Stuart Buck, the director of research at the Arnold Foundation) recently tried to assess all the relevant studies to see if any of them settled the energy balance vs. carbohydrate hypothesis definitively. Our list of the relevant studies is posted at NuSI along with an assessment of each trial. ...Our assessment was that not a single one of these trials was even vaguely definitive. " [ A link to the (no longer available on their website) Summary of The Literature ]

Rather than wasting millions on another funding agency, LJAF and/or Buck could have hired Taubes and Attia on, or contracted their services.  This might have cost, oh I don't know, under a few hundred thousand?  Let's put the $10 Million they would have saved in context of what they spent on the projects they did fund
  • Energy Balance Consortium $5 million:  Instead of a "pilot" study, the scope and duration of this study could have been significantly expanded by tripling of funding!
  • Stanford University Study $7.4 million:  Imagine what more than doubling the funding could have done here.  
  • Boston Children's Hospital Study $13.6 million:  Imagine what an additional $10 million could have done to iron out all the kinks from Ebbeling et.al. 2012!
... and we could have NAFLD in children, at least, pretty well cured by now, right??



             

R.I.P. NuSI


Following Peter Attia slipping out the back door at the end of 2015, NuSI inexplicably rolled out a totally revamped website for 2016.  I'm not sure quite why this was needed, there has been nothing new added since early-to-mid 2015.  There's been total social media (and any traditional media for that matter) silence from NuSI.

As of now (March 2018), the results of the first two studies have been published.

The Hall-led Energy Balance Consortium was completed by Summer 2014, and (finally) published in July 2016.  Gary Taubes responded disgracefully to the results as they were not favorable to his pet hypothesis.  Instead he chose the low road, impugning the integrity of researchers he had previously touted and eventually having to apologize to Kevin Hall for his behavior.   In the end, this metabolic ward study added to considerable pre-existing evidence of similar quality that falsified TWICHOO.

The Gardner-led Stanford results were just published last month.  Despite spin by Taubes and Ludwig (the conflict of interest there as a NuSI funded researcher is staggering!!) the results were unfavorable to TWICHOO.  Make no mistake about it, the design of this study had foremost in mind this idea that a person's "insulin status" was an important component in dietary recommendations to either prevent weight gain/obesity and/or predict success in weight loss/reversing obesity. The answer was a rather resounding "no evidence to support" ... and the spin is rather more than embarrassing at this point.

Ludwig's study has morphed into the Framingham State Food Study, and by most indications ended sometime last year.  There had been no further mention of NuSI in the later "recruiting classes" for that study.  In the end, the weight loss phase of that study will, once again, confirm that a calorie deficit is the key, and all subjects will have lost weight on a "standard" low fat reduced calorie diet.  I predict Ludwig will do his best to spin in the actual journal article, but there will be nothing earth shattering to come from this study.

Eventually we'll get the results of the small NAFLD study, and that will be the end of NuSI.   But we won't even be hearing it from them.


“NuSI is looking to concentrate all nutrition science funding efforts into one common and strategic path to resolution, rather than individual efforts that don’t build to a greater scientific understanding.  Without all the elements – money, time and talent – working in concert, research efforts will continue to fall short of what is necessary to solve this problem. Our greatest asset is our dedication to solving a fundamentally solvable problem using a multi-disciplinary and focused approach. NuSI will be successful because we are bringing together the best scientific minds and giving them the time and resources they require to find the answers we all need.” 
~Peter Attia, September 2012 



Edit 3/13/18 to add this screencapped quote from NuSI.  This was tweeted to me by the author of the following blog post written about Low Carb Fraud last November.





 






A sampling of early articles ...





“Diet has profound importance for human health, NuSI will catalyze a revolution in nutrition science by challenging both the conventional wisdom that obesity is caused simply by eating too many calories and the alternative hypothesis that obesity is caused less by the actual number of calories consumed and more by the type of calories consumed. We see an effective way to address the problem, and the solution is within our reach.”  ~Gary Taubes
“NuSI is looking to concentrate all nutrition science funding efforts into one common and strategic path to resolution, rather than individual efforts that don’t build to a greater scientific understanding. Without all the elements – money, time and talent – working in concert, research efforts will continue to fall short of what is necessary to solve this problem. Our greatest asset is our dedication to solving a fundamentally solvable problem using a multi-disciplinary and focused approach. NuSI will be successful because we are bringing together the best scientific minds and giving them the time and resources they require to find the answers we all need.”  ~Peter Attia


The New Science of Giving  WSJ, May 2013

LIKE ANY POPULAR food writer, Gary Taubes gets more than his share of e-mails about his work. So he didn't give it much thought one day two years ago when he got a five-line comment about a podcast he'd given the week before. It was plainly signed "John."
The man was intrigued by Taubes's theories on why people get fat—more specifically, the food writer's argument that most of the science on obesity is either badly flawed or inconclusive. What was needed, Taubes had said, was a comprehensive experiment that can answer some of the key questions about how our bodies process food. The problem is that such a study is hugely expensive. "From the little I know about the science of nutrition, your study makes a lot of sense," the listener wrote, adding that he ran a foundation focused on public policy. [...
... ]Attia recalls that when he called to see if he could set up a meeting with Arnold, the response was, "First give us the names of 20 top experts in the field, half of whom think you are crazy." A few weeks later, he found himself in a conference room located just off the trading floor at Arnold's Houston office, during which it became apparent that Arnold and his staff had already spoken with most, if not all, of the experts Attia provided. And something else was apparent: Though boyish and just 37, Arnold was dead serious about launching the obesity study. Indeed, his ambitions couldn't have been higher. He wanted to know if all the best and brightest food scientists got together—and had unlimited resources—what could they accomplish? [...
...] Today, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation is bankrolling a $26 million nutrition study by Attia's nonprofit, an effort that involves the use of metabolic chambers and that Attia likes to call "the Manhattan Project of obesity."


Why Are We So Fat? The Multimillion-Dollar Scientific Quest to Find Out    
Wired.com, September 2014
The Energy Balance Consortium Study, as it's called, is one of the first to be backed by the Nutrition Science Initiative, a nonprofit that prides itself on funding fanatically careful tests of previously overlooked hypotheses.

The three NuSI studies now under way, which focus on establishing the root causes of obesity and its related diseases, provide just a glimpse of Taubes and Attia's sweeping ambition. NuSI has already raised more than $40 million in pledges and is in the midst of a $190 million, three-year campaign to fund a new round of studies that will build off the findings in the initial research.

THE INITIATIVE HAS AN AMBITIOUS GOAL: CUT THE PREVALENCE OF OBESITY IN THE U.S. BY MORE THAN HALF IN LESS THAN 15 YEARS.




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