‘Apparent Mix-Up’ Prompts NIH To Notify 150 AIDS, Sexuality Researchers That Congress Questions Research Value
An "apparent mix-up" with Congress prompted NIH officials over the past several weeks to notify and inform more than 150 researchers studying AIDS, sexuality and high-risk behaviors that lawmakers are "taking a skeptical look" at their research, the Los Angeles Times reports (Zitner, Los Angeles Times, 10/28). NIH program officers have been contacting researchers on the list and asking them to provide "thumbnail descriptions" about the public benefit of their projects, according to scientists familiar with the list, the San Francisco Chronicle reports (Russell, San Francisco Chronicle, 10/28). For several months, conservative House members have questioned 10 NIH research grants, including grants for studies on emergency contraception, Asian sex workers in San Francisco and women's response to pornography. At an Oct. 2 hearing on the grants, Rep. Michael Ferguson (R-N.J.) asked NIH for information about the public benefit of the 10 studies, Ferguson said on Monday. NIH Director Elias Zerhouni's staff contacted the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which co-sponsored the hearing, to obtain the list of the 10 studies about which Ferguson wanted further information. Instead of sending the list of 10 studies, a committee staff member sent a different list, including more than 150 scientists, according to the Times (Los Angeles Times, 10/28). The longer list, which includes more than 200 grants representing $100 million in funding, was prepared by the Traditional Values Coalition, which says it represents 43,000 churches nationwide (Shane, Baltimore Sun, 10/28). NIH said that it has been contacting the researchers on the list in an effort to help the agency defend the grants should they be questioned by Congress, according to the Chronicle (San Francisco Chronicle, 10/28).
Ken Johnson, spokesperson for the House committee, said that the committee had not asked NIH to take any action on the list. "Our committee has not called for an investigation into these specific grants," Johnson said. He added that the committee is conducting a broad investigation into fraud and waste in NIH grant management, "but we are not singling out nor targeting these specific grants." NIH spokesperson John Burklow said that the purpose of calling the researchers "was to notify them, as was only right, that their grants were on a list referred to at a public hearing ... so that they didn't hear about this in some other way" (Los Angeles Times, 10/28). However, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) in a letter to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said that the longer list amounted to "scientific McCarthyism" and sends "a clear message to scientists ... that the Bush administration is prepared to attack leading researchers and sacrifice scientific integrity at NIH to further a narrow right-wing ideological agenda." Waxman also alleged that federal officials at HHS were involved in the creation of the list (Pierce, Washington Times, 10/28). HHS officials denied any role in assembling the lists, saying that all of the information was publicly available through two databases (Sherman, AP/Yahoo! News, 10/28). Andrea Lafferty, TVC executive director, also denied HHS involvement, saying, "The research is my research, mine and my staff. We began collecting the information [on the list] under the Clinton administration ... and worked on it for months and months" (Washington Times, 10/28). However, Waxman's letter argued that some of the information included in the list is not available on the publicly accessible NIH grant database but would have been "easily available on internal computer systems at HHS" (Letter text, 10/27).
Several scientists said that they did not feel threatened by the calls from NIH staff. However, Waxman aides said that they had been contacted by researchers who felt that the calls may discourage scientists from proposing similar projects in the future. An unnamed scientist said that inquiries into NIH funding "may serve to discourage NIH from funding this kind of work ... because the additional scrutiny creates extra work for NIH staff and potentially threatens the entire NIH budget process in Congress" (Los Angeles Times, 10/28). University of California-Los Angeles professor Tom Coates, who until September was director of the University of California-San Francisco AIDS Research Institute, said that the list has created a "huge stir" in the AIDS research community, according to the Chronicle. "The general feeling is one of fear and intimidation. Anyone who has engaged in this kind of research and sees their name on such a list wonders if one's funding is going to be in jeopardy," Coates said. Lafferty said that the grants on the list are a "total abuse of taxpayer dollars," adding, "We know for a fact that millions and millions of dollars have been flushed down the toilet over years on this HIV/AIDS scam and sham. We know what it takes to prevent getting the disease. It takes not engaging in risky sexual behaviors" (San Francisco Chronicle, 10/28).
Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.) in a July letter to TVC informed the group that it had been removed from the list of Values Action Team member organizations until at least July 2004 (Letter text, 7/17). VAT is a coalition of antiabortion and pro-family organizations and members of Congress (Republican Study Committee Web site, 10/28). Pitts wrote that "recent conduct" by the group had "infuriated the pro-life community in Washington." He continued, "In fact a very large number of members have demanded that this action be taken based both on your recent actions and on your organization's overall reputation." Pitts said that the group's inclusion in VAT may be reconsidered next year (Letter text, 7/17). "WUSA Tonight with Derek McGinty," a television news discussion program on the Washington, D.C., CBS network affiliate station, on Tuesday interviewed Judith Auerbach, vice president of public policy for the American Foundation for AIDS Research, and Lafferty about the NIH research grants (McGinty, "WUSA Tonight with Derek McGinty," WUSA, 10/28). A video of the segment in Windows Media is available online.