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This article is from the In-Depth Report AIDS Today--And Tomorrow

Do scientists self-censor in politically charged grant applications?

If you study prostitutes, would you tell the NIH?

Half of scientists whose federally funded research — most of it about sex and AIDS — was subjected to extra scrutiny by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2003 after conservative members of Congress questioned its merits say they now censor wording in their grant applications that might raise "red flags" at the agency, according to a new survey.

Five years ago, Rep. Patrick Toomey (R-PA) proposed a bill amendment that would have pulled funding for five grants. The legislation failed by a 210 to 212 vote, but after that, members of a House and Senate committee asked NIH Director Elias Zerhouni to explain the “medical benefit” of those and five additional grants. Because of a clerical error, those ten grants turned into about 250 grants by 157 investigators that Zerhouni ordered reviewed.

That review led to Zerhouni to say the research was valid in a January 2004 letter to members of Congress, and no funding was pulled.

Still, the scientists were still skittish in the years after. When 82 of them were surveyed in 2005 and 2006, more than half said they leave out words in their funding requests such as "gay," "lesbian," "bisexual," "sexual intercourse," "anal sex," "homosexual," "homophobia," "AIDS," "bare-backing," "bath-houses," "sex workers," "needle exchange" and "harm reduction," according to the survey published in this week's PLoS Medicine.

One left academic research, another relocated to another country “for a more supportive science environment,” and two switched to jobs with guaranteed salaries, according to the new survey. The scientists aren’t identified.

“Even that a few changed their lives as a result of this controversy was surprising to me,” says study author Joanna Kempner, an assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers New Brunswick.

Whether this “chilling effect” affected the research itself is unclear, according to the study. “Unfortunately, researchers' strategy of cleansing titles and abstracts of controversial keywords makes it difficult to assess objectively (for example, via keyword searches on CRISP [the NIH grant database]) whether funding levels have, in fact, dropped for sexuality grants,” Kempner writes in the study.

Raynard Kington, the NIH’s acting director, says the agency’s support of AIDS, sex, drug and mental health research hasn’t changed. “We have every expectation that scientists who apply for grants will rigorously and precisely describe what they intend to do,” he told ScientificAmerican.com today. “We have not encouraged them to change their wording.

“I can’t speculate as to what’s driven people to make career decisions,” he adds. “Scientists are pretty passionate … about what they do and the importance of what they do. I believe in the commitment of the scientific community to stay true to those principles in the face of scrutiny that is unwarranted and inaccurate.”
 
To be sure, spinning grant applications is nothing new. In a super-competitive environment -- about one in five grants is approved, Kington says --- scientists often find words that might make their work appealing, rather than leaving out ones that might raise eyebrows. For example, they might use the phrase “disease research” to convince funders of the merits of their genomics studies, or suggest applications to cancer even if the basis of their work has only tangential links to the disease.

“Certainly researchers have always edited their priorities in response to what they believe the NIH is interested in funding,” Kempner says. “Some of the researchers in my study said they were more likely to incorporate some aspect of abstinence research because they thought it would be appealing, even though as a scientist they didn’t think there was much value in studying abstinence education.”

But in this case, scientists didn’t buy that the NIH would back projects after they had been so politicized, she says. “Although they [NIH officers] were encouraging researchers to submit grants on controversial topics, some didn’t get that message or didn’t quite believe them,” Kempner says.
 
The 2003 controversy wasn’t the first time that public funding of scientific research was questioned. Sen. William Proxmire first handed out “golden fleece” awards in 1975 to scientists whose work he deemed wasteful, including one that year for research on love. Other “awards” went to the National Institute for Mental Health for research on the happenings in a Peruvian brothel and the Pentagon for studying whether soldiers should carry umbrellas when it rains, according to Proxmire’s obituary in the New York Times.

Image by iStockphoto/Lajos Répási

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