Federal officials for the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have warned AIDS researchers to eliminate certain words from their grant applications that are considered "politically controversial" and that could trigger congressional or Bush administration scrutiny, The New York Times reports. The researchers, who spoke to the Times on the condition of anonymity, said those words include "anal sex," "men who have sex with men," "sex workers," and "needle exchange." The titles and abstracts of federally financed grants are publicly available on a national database, and many congressional staffers and employees at the Department of Health and Human Services use the database to track research on topics of concern to the politicians and health officials.
Bill Pierce, an HHS spokesperson, said the department does not screen grant applications for politically sensitive language, but an unnamed NIH official said the agency's project officers are telling grant applicants and recipients to avoid the phrases to prevent unwarranted government scrutiny of the funded projects and possibly even the organizations receiving the grants. Political scrutiny of scientific research, particularly related to HIV/AIDS, has grown "much worse and more intense" under the Bush administration, the official said. John Burklow, an NIH spokesman, said that agency project directors do provide advice about the grant application process, but he refused to confirm or deny whether the officers are cautioning against the use of certain language.
However, several researchers confirmed that they've been warned to avoid the controversial language. Alfred Sommer, dean of the John Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, said a researcher at his institute was warned by the NIH to change the term "sex worker" in a grant application to "something more euphemistic." An NIH project adviser also reportedly told a University of California researcher that the language in a grant application for research on HIV antibody testing among men who have sex with men should be "cleansed" and not contain any potentially controversial words like "gay," "homosexual," or "transgender" because those words would likely draw HHS and congressional scrutiny.
Sommer said the prospect that certain research grants are being targeted by federal officials and lawmakers has created a "pernicious sense of insecurity" among AIDS researchers, adding that medical research has traditionally not been influenced by politics but that the atmosphere has changed dramatically under the Bush administration. "If people feel intimidated and start clouding the language they use, then your mind starts to get cloudy and the science gets cloudy," he said.