NIH Research Under Scrutiny

Research funded by the National Institutes of Health that focuses on sexual behavior and HIV has come under fire recently by critics, and Congress is involved in the controversy as well. The names of over 150 grantees, recipients of close to 200 NIH grants, recently appeared on a list developed by the Traditional Values Coalition, or TVC, an organization that describes itself as a “ministry group that is always speaking up for those basic Christian values and beliefs that have made America great.” This list made its way from TVC to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and from the committee to NIH, and is now the source of much discussion in Washington. This follows on the heels of a barely-thwarted attempt in Congress to derail similar research at NIH.

Rep. Patrick Toomey

In July, Rep. Patrick Toomey, R-PA, introduced an amendment to the NIH appropriations bill that sought to de-fund four studies in sexual behavior sponsored by NIH – it failed by a single vote (“Politics Invade Peer Review,” Observer, Vol. 16 No. 9.)

In early October, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni appeared before a joint hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, the two congressional committees with oversight over NIH. During the hearing, Rep. Ferguson quizzed Zerhouni about a list of 10 grants, all of which pertained to sexual behavior, and asked him for more information on the benefits of the research. When NIH contacted the House Energy and Commerce committee to obtain the list prepared by Ferguson, a staffer mistakenly sent the full list of nearly 200 grants, originally prepared by the TVC and submitted to the committee. The list includes grants from several Institutes, but the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development fund the majority of grants. Almost every grant on the list involves sexual behavior, HIV transmission, or risk taking behavior. The TVC has attacked this research as a waste of taxpayer dollars, and has called these grants “smarmy” and claimed they had “little or no bearing on public health.” Not all of the grants on this list were currently being funded.

These events have been cause for concern not only for behavioral scientists, but also for the scientific community in general. Not only is legitimate, relevant, beneficial science being called into question by the release of this list and its connection to Congress, but the NIH peer review process is under scrutiny as well. The clash between science and politics has many on edge about the future of research on behavior that critics may view as controversial or immoral. Several professional societies, including APS, have expressed their outrage that both the substance and process of NIH research is being called into question. When asked by Science magazine for his reaction to these events, APS Executive Director Alan Kraut said, “These are important areas of public health that have to be studied. I think there’s reason to worry.” The grants on the list also gained support from Alan Leshner, Director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and an APS Fellow and Charter Member. “We can’t have moralizing and ideology trump science when it comes to protecting the public health,” Leshner told The Washington Post. “It’s vitally important that we understand the processes by which public health problems spread if we’re ever going to get a handle on issues as important as HIV/AIDS and drug abuse.”

Alan Leshner

NIH spokesperson John Burklow has said repeatedly that the agency will not comment on the merits of individual grants but will respond to Congress with a letter that describes the value of the studies and the review process. Over all, the projects on the list “address important public-health issues,” Burklow said. He told The Chronicle of Higher Education that NIH would “stand behind our peer-review process, which is world-renowned. Congress has asked NIH to explain the medical benefits hoped to be derived from the studies, and we’re in the process of doing that.”

NIMH Director Tom Insel put it more succinctly. “We’ll go to the mat” over the importance of this research, he said.

In Congress, the chief defender of this research has been Rep. Henry Waxman, D-CA, the ranking minority member of the Committee on Government Reform and a member of the Committee on Energy and Commerce. Waxman wrote two letters to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, on October 27 and 28, 2003. In these letters, he described the document as a “hit list,” and called the whole process of generating the list “scientific McCarthyism.” He called on Thompson to denounce the list and asked Thompson to investigate whether anyone at HHS played a role in the list’s creation. A Web site sponsored by Rep. Waxman,, has begun posting statements by the scientific community in opposition to the efforts of the TVC and their allies in Congress. The full text of his letters to Secretary Thompson can be found there as well.

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