NIH, CDC Scientists ‘Outraged’ by HHS Decision To Allow Only 50 People To Attend International AIDS ConferenceHHS Secretary Tommy Thompson's decision to save money by cutting the number of government scientists allowed to travel to the XV International AIDS Conference scheduled for July in Bangkok, Thailand, has "sparked outrage" at NIH and CDC, Science reports (Cohen, Science, 3/26). HHS two weeks ago announced that it would spend $500,000 to send 50 people to the conference, down from the $3.6 million spent to send 236 people to the 2002 conference in Barcelona, Spain, according to Science. HHS spokesperson Bill Pierce said that spending for the Barcelona conference was "excessive" and that the 50-person cap allows 10 more people to go to the conference than HHS policy usually allows for international delegations. Staff already stationed in Southeast Asia are exempt from the cap, and individuals who are giving keynote speeches or presenting papers have priority, Pierce said. He added that researchers who are not able to attend the conference can "share their findings" through other outlets, such as scientific journals, Science reports. According to "well-placed" Science sources, HHS official Bill Steiger allegedly told agency AIDS officials that the cut was due in part to the fact that Thompson was heckled at the 2002 Barcelona conference. However, Pierce rejected that assertion, saying it is "completely incorrect," according to Science (Kaiser, Science, 3/19).
The budget constraints cited for the Thailand conference "didn't crimp" an HHS-sponsored delegation that Thompson led to Africa in December 2003, according to figures from HHS documents, Science reports (Science, 3/26). Thompson toured four African nations with a U.S. delegation of lawmakers, business leaders and religious groups, including Randall Tobias, head of the new State Department Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator, CDC Director Julie Gerberding, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni and NIAID Director Anthony Fauci (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 12/11/03). Although several of the non-government guests reportedly paid for themselves, HHS spent $726,734 for Thompson and about 36 government employees to go on the trip. The costs included $11,000 in cell phone charges, $10,000 for a public relations firm and nearly $400,000 for a chartered airplane, according to records obtained by Science (Science, 3/26).
Webcasts and other coverage of the XV International AIDS Conference will be available online at www.kaisernetwork.org/aids2004. Special coverage of the XIV International AIDS Conference in Barcelona, Spain, from kaisernetwork.org is also available online at www.kaisernetwork.org/aids2002.