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National Institutes of Health director defends government research on sexuality

National Institutes of Health director defends government research on sexuality

Answering complaints from conservatives, the director of the National Institutes of Health has issued a forceful defense of government funding of research on human sexuality. Elias Zerhouni, in a letter to Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), said he had reviewed studies of California prostitutes, sex and drug use among truckers, the sexual habits of older men, sexual arousal among gays and lesbians, and other projects in question. "I fully support NIH's continued investment in research on human sexuality," said Zerhouni, whose January 26 letter to the House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman was made public Thursday. Zerhouni said NIH could do a better job of explaining the projects to the public "so that they may understand the relevance of this research to public health." Tauzin's committee was reviewing the management of grant programs but not investigating individual grants, according to congressional aides. The projects reviewed drew the ire of some conservative groups and lawmakers, who said the money was wasted. "One grant pays people to watch pornography and drink alcohol before watching pornography," Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.) told Zerhouni at a hearing in October. Pitts's spokesman did not immediately offer comment Thursday. Last July the House narrowly defeated an attempt by Pitts and others to block funds for the sexuality research grants. The Washington, D.C.-based Traditional Values Coalition provided lawmakers a list of 157 researchers with NIH grants, calling them a "total abuse of taxpayer dollars." Zerhouni said the study of sexual behavior, while distasteful to some, is important in the battle against disease. "Clearly, this has to be considered as one of our highest priorities in light of the enormous suffering and costs of illnesses associated with sexual behavior," he said. Andrea Lafferty, the coalition's executive director, said Zerhouni's argument was unconvincing and superficial. But the letter was praised by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who last fall criticized NIH and Health and Human Services secretary Tommy Thompson for questioning researchers about their work. "I urge my colleagues in Congress and Secretary Thompson to respect Dr. Zerhouni's decision and disavow irresponsible attacks on science," Waxman said. At the time, NIH officials said the calls were not meant to threaten researchers with the loss of funds but to inform them that their names were on a list being circulated in Washington. An agency spokesman said officials also were trying to put the research into the context of the agency's scientific mission.

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