NIH notifies scientists on grant `hit list'

Research on sexual issues targeted by conservative group, noted by Congress

October 28, 2003|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

The National Institutes of Health is alerting more than 150 scientists whose research on HIV and sexual habits has been targeted by a conservative advocacy group and asking them to help defend their work.

The list of about $100 million in grants - including some studies by the Johns Hopkins University - was prepared by the Traditional Values Coalition, which claims to represent 43,000 churches nationwide.

"This is NIH's Mapplethorpe," said Executive Director Andrea Lafferty, referring to provocative works by artist Robert Mapplethorpe whose federal funding was denounced by religious conservatives. Describing studies of sexual conduct among illegal immigrants and truck-stop prostitutes, Lafferty said of NIH, "They have flushed tens of millions of dollars down the toilet."

The coalition's complaints reflect a long-running dispute between conservatives who believe tax money is being wasted on pointless or immoral research and researchers who say sexual conduct is a crucial research topic when AIDS is ravaging many countries.

Democratic Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California denounced the coalition's compilation yesterday as an ideologically driven "hit list" and demanded an explanation from Health Secretary Tommy G. Thompson.

Congressional Republicans distanced themselves from the conservative group's action. And one congressional staff member said the flap apparently resulted in part from a series of miscues he called a "comedy of errors."

"We are not targeting these grants," said Ken Johnson, a spokesman for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. "No hearings are planned. It's much ado about nothing."

Johnson acknowledged that a committee staffer had sent the coalition's list to NIH, but he said that was a mistake: "Frankly, that staffer exercised poor judgment."

The panel's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations has been reviewing NIH grant-making since March, but that inquiry has nothing to do with the Traditional Values Coalition and its objections to some NIH-funded research, Johnson said.

NIH officials insisted yesterday that by calling the grant recipients on the list, they were not trying to intimidate the researchers or raise questions about their work.

"Absolutely not," said NIH spokesman John Burklow. "They weren't asked to justify their research. It was just a notification." Some researchers were also asked for their help in preparing an explanation of the value of the projects to be given to Congress.

Burklow said NIH stands behind its procedures for selecting grant recipients, involving a competitive review of grant applications by independent scientists: "We have a very well-established process of peer review."

Among more than 200 grants on the list are more than a dozen to scientists at the Johns Hopkins medical and public health schools, including studies on the risk of HIV among Moscow prostitutes, the epidemiology of AIDS among opiate users in Thailand and methods to prevent sexually transmitted diseases in high schools.

Hopkins released a statement saying the university believes "strongly in the time-tested principle that research funding should be awarded through peer review" focusing only on "the scientific merit and public health and clinical importance of proposed research."

One Hopkins researcher on the list, who asked not to be named, said he found the call unusual but not threatening. "It was informational," he said.

But another, Dr. Liana Clark of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said NIH asked her to describe the usefulness of her research into teen-agers' 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," Clark told the Associated Press.

The Traditional Values Coalition, which has offices in Washington and California, prepared the list of grants last summer. "Maybe we should get five normal taxpayers from around the country to look at whether these are justified," Lafferty said.

Asked why she objected to Hopkins studies of HIV in Thailand, she hedged, saying that the grants should get closer scrutiny but were not necessarily unjustified.

"Maybe we decide it is OK to do the work in Thailand," Lafferty said. "So maybe it's only $90 million that's being wasted and not $100 million."

In any case, NIH's use of the Traditional Values Coalition list to respond to congressional inquiries appeared to result from a misunderstanding.

Burklow, the NIH spokesman, said the agency asked congressional staffers for a list of questionable grants mentioned at an Oct. 2 hearing at which NIH Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni testified. He noted that one congressman, New Jersey Republican Rep. Mike Ferguson, asked Zerhouni for a "written explanation for the medical benefit" of the studies on the list.

Commerce committee spokesman Johnson said that after the hearing, NIH called the committee asking for "the list," and a staffer sent the coalition list.

A close reading of Ferguson's remarks shows that he was referring not to the Traditional Values list but a different list of just 10 grants prepared by the Republican Study Committee, a group of House conservatives.

The 10 grants questioned by the committee included studies of reactions to pornography, the morning-after pill and Chinese pandas.

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