NEW YORK TIMES
Friday, April 18, 2003
Certain words can trip up AIDS grants, scientists say
Scientists who study AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases say they have been warned by federal health officials that their research may come under unusual scrutiny by the Department of Health and Human Services or by members of Congress, because the topics are politically controversial.
The scientists, who spoke on condition they not be identified, say they have been advised they can avoid unfavorable attention by keeping certain "key words" out of their applications for grants from the National Institutes of Health or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those words include "sex workers," "men who sleep with men," "anal sex" and "needle exchange," the scientists said.
Bill Pierce, a spokesman for the health and human services department, said the department does not screen grant applications for politically delicate content. He said that when the department singles out grants it is usually to send out a news release about them. But an official at the National Institutes of Health, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said project officers at the agency, the people who deal with grant applicants and recipients, were telling researchers at meetings and in telephone conversations to avoid so-called sensitive language. But the official added, "You won't find any paper or anything that advises people to do this."
The official said researchers had long been advised to avoid phrases that might mark their work as controversial. But the degree of scrutiny under the Bush administration was "much worse and more intense," the official said.
Dr. Alfred Sommer, the dean of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, said a researcher at his institution had been advised by a project officer at N.I.H. to change the term "sex worker" to something more euphemistic in a grant proposal for a study of H.I.V. prevention among prostitutes. He said the idea that grants might be subject to political surveillance was creating a "pernicious sense of insecurity" among researchers.
Dr. Sommer said that if researchers feared that federal support for their work might be affected by politics, whether it was true or untrue, it could take a toll. "If people feel intimidated and start clouding the language they use, then your mind starts to get cloudy and the science gets cloudy," he said, adding that the federal financing of medical research had traditionally been free from political influence.
At the National Institutes of Health, for example, grant applications are evaluated and rated by a panel of independent reviewers. The grant application is then given a score.
In another example of the scrutiny the scientists described, a researcher at the University of California said he had been advised by an N.I.H. project officer that the abstract of a grant application he was submitting "should be 'cleansed' and should not contain any contentious wording like 'gay' or `homosexual' or 'transgender.'"
The researcher said the project officer told him that grants that included those words were "being screened out and targeted for more intense scrutiny."
He said he was now struggling with how to write the grant proposal, which dealt with a study of gay men and H.I.V. testing. When the subjects were gay men, he said, "It's hard not to mention them in your abstract."
The titles and abstracts of federally financed grants are available to the public on a computer database maintained by the national institutes. The database, called CRISP, is also frequently read by Congressional staff members on the lookout for research on topics that are of concern to the politicians they work for. Over the years, studies on cloning, abortion, animal rights, needle-exchange programs and various types of AIDS research have been criticized by members of Congress.
But researchers said they feared that the concerns of individual members of Congress were now being taken more seriously by the health and human services department.
John Burklow, a spokesman for the N.I.H., said project directors at the agency were responsible for "providing advice and guidance on myriad issues related to grant applications," but he did not confirm or deny that the project officers were cautioning researchers about the language they used.
He said that the health and human services department "from a management perspective has a right to oversee N.I.H. affairs" but that department officials "have not interfered with the awarding or renewing of any N.I.H. grant."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
Created: May 2, 2003
Last modified: May 2, 2003
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