WASHINGTON. — ONE STEP ahead of an indignant Congress, the world's greatest medical research organization, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has belatedly recognized that half the human race is female, and it has accordingly established an Office of Research on Women's Health. The long overdue innovation warrants cheers. But it also invites concern that people who are indeed so smart could be so obtuse for so long.
It should first be understood that NIH, wholly federally financed, is the global Goliath of the medical sciences. Its budget of $8 billion a year far exceeds the medical research spending of all other governments combined. NIH regularly finances the training of thousands of scientists. Its policies and practices set the priorities and standards for health research in its own laboratories and in universities and laboratories throughout the country.
Thus, it was with considerable concern and puzzlement that women members of Congress noted that NIH's programs for testing new medicines and therapeutic techniques often involve only male test subjects, leaving blank the question of how women would respond to such treatments. There have been many instances of female omission, with the most glaring case involving a long study of the value of ordinary aspirin for preventing heart attacks.
Medical folklore had long held that aspirin does indeed provide some protective effect. But NIH researchers wanted scientifically exact data. And so, in 1981, they undertook an experiment in which 22,000 male physicians were enlisted to take a pill every other day, without knowing whether it was aspirin or a placebo. The experiment was limited to physicians because they are a stable, easy-to-follow population and could be expected to recognize the importance of adhering to the pill schedule.
When challenged by some of the few women in Congress, NIH officials lamely said that the ranks of women in medicine were too thin to warrant their inclusion. The NIH strategists didn't explain their failure to enlist the nursing profession, which, of course, abounds with women.
In any case, just as the House committee for NIH legislation was passing an amendment requiring NIH to set up a women's office, NIH announced the creation of an Office of Research on Women's Health. The move was applauded by Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.), who chairs the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues. And the acting head of the new office announced that from now on, proportional women's participation in research trials will be required, unless a sound reason is established for not doing so.
Scientists often complain about the intrusion of politics into research, claiming that science is best left to scientists. In most circumstances, they're right. But occasions do arise when we're all better off because political pressure forces science to examine its practices and make corrections.
The exclusion of women from important health studies is so preposterous and indefensible as to arouse wonder about the scientific mentality. It went on for years. And there's no reason to believe it would have ended if the women of Congress hadn't demanded reform.