Spurred by complaints from a conservative group, the National Institutes of Health is questioning government-funded researchers about the value of their work on AIDS and sexual practices and warning the scientists that they may come under congressional scrutiny. NIH spokesman John Burklow said Republican members of Congress gave the agency a list of 157 researchers with NIH grants that the lawmakers wants to audit. The list was actually prepared for the Republicans by the Washington, D.C.-based Traditional Values Coalition, a private right-wing organization that targeted such programs as those that focused on teenagers' sexual activity, sex and drug use among truckers, and sexually transmitted diseases among Mexican immigrants, among many others.
The list includes comments from the Traditional Values Coalition about several of the studies, including one in Michigan about teenagers' sexual and mental health that the coalition alleges "promotes a 'sex positive' attitude among teens; endorses sexual behavior and condom use among teens." One researcher on the list, Liana Clark of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said the NIH asked her to describe the usefulness of her research into teenagers' misconceptions about birth control. "I just keep thinking that this is a bad nightmare and I'm actually going to wake up from all this," she said.
Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition, defended the list, calling the projects included on it a waste of taxpayer money. "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," she said. "We know what it takes to prevent getting this disease. It takes not engaging in risky sexual behaviors."
The list prepared includes more than 250 specific grants, including several at the world-renowned AIDS centers at the University of California, San Francisco, and the University of California, Los Angeles. Tom Coates, former head of UCSF AIDS research and now a faculty member at UCLA, who is included on the list, said researchers are beginning to fear that their funding will be pulled if they focus on projects that conservative lawmakers might object to. "The general feeling is one of fear and intimidation," he told the San Francisco Chronicle. "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."
The Los Angeles Times reports that the list was inadvertently given to the NIH by a key Republican-controlled House committee. House Energy and Commerce Committee members reportedly were investigating 10 specific programs they had objections to and wanted NIH background on the programs and the researchers. When NIH officials contacted the committee to obtain a list of the specific programs, the full list prepared by the Traditional Values Coalition was accidentally forwarded to agency officials. NIH staff then began contacting the agencies and researchers on the longer list to request "thumbnail descriptions" of the public benefits of their research projects and to warn them that Congress may investigate their grants and the value of their research.
Rep. Henry Waxman, a senior Democrat who has criticized the Bush administration for interfering with science, called the list a "hit list" and "scientific McCarthyism" and questioned whether federal agencies aided in its compilation. "Every grant passed a rigorous peer review at NIH, the world's leading medical research agency, before receiving funding," Waxman said in a letter to Health and Human Services secretary Tommy Thompson. HHS officials denied any role in putting together the list.