Federal Health Officials Reportedly Warn AIDS Researchers To Eliminate ‘Politically Controversial’ Language From Grant Applications
Federal officials from NIH and CDC have reportedly warned scientists who research AIDS and other diseases to eliminate certain "key words" considered to be "politically controversial" from their grant applications to those agencies, the New York Times reports. The researchers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that officials warned them that the use of words such as "sex workers," "men who sleep with men," "anal sex" and "needle exchange" could cause their applications to come under "unusual scrutiny" by HHS or members of Congress, according to the Times. The titles and abstracts of federally financed grants are publicly available on a national database called CRISP, and many congressional staffers use the database to track research on topics of concern to the politicians for whom they work. Controversial topics such as cloning, abortion, needle-exchange programs and AIDS research have incurred congressional criticism in the past, according to the Times. Bill Pierce, an HHS spokesperson, said that the department does not screen grant applications for politically sensitive language; however, an unnamed NIH official said that the agency's project officers are telling grant applicants and recipients to avoid such language, although there are no official documents advising officers to do so. The official said that officers had long advised applicants to avoid controversial language but that the degree of political scrutiny of scientific research had grown "much worse and more intense" under the Bush administration.
Dr. Alfred Sommer, dean of the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, said that a researcher at his institution was advised by NIH to change the term "sex worker" to "something more euphemistic" in a grant proposal to study HIV prevention among sex workers, according to the Times. Sommer said that the prospect that grants might be subject to political scrutiny was creating a "pernicious sense of insecurity" among researchers, adding that medical research traditionally has not been influenced by politics. In another example, an NIH project officer advised an unnamed researcher from the University of California that his grant application for research on HIV testing among men who have sex with men "should be 'cleansed' and should not contain any contentious wording like 'gay' or 'homosexual' or 'transgender,'" because grants with such language were "being screened out and targeted for more intense scrutiny." John Burklow, a NIH spokesperson, said that agency project directors are responsible for providing advice about the application process but refused to confirm or deny whether the officers are cautioning against the use of certain language (Goode, New York Times, 4/18).