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'Intimidation' Against AIDS Studies Claimed

Federal health officials are using 'scientific McCarthyism,' Rep. Waxman says.

October 28, 2003|Aaron Zitner | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — An apparent misunderstanding with Congress prompted the National Institutes of Health to put more than 150 researchers on notice in recent weeks that lawmakers were taking a skeptical look at their studies on AIDS, sexuality and high-risk behaviors.

The calls to researchers, in turn, provoked accusations Monday from Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) that federal health officials were using "intimidation" and "scientific McCarthyism" to frighten researchers whose work is opposed by conservatives.

The apparent mix-up comes amid an ongoing dispute in which Waxman and leading figures in the scientific community allege that members of the Bush administration are trying to strip funding from research they find politically uncomfortable, including studies of workplace injuries, lead poisoning and sex- and drug-related activity tied to AIDS.

That an apparent misunderstanding could become so inflamed shows how tense the dispute has become over certain federally funded research.

"It sounds to me like there might have been a miscommunication here," said Rep. Michael Ferguson (R-N.J.), whose inquiries helped touch off the calls.

For months, conservative House members have challenged 10 grants that the NIH awarded in recent years, among them studies of emergency contraception, of Asian prostitutes in San Francisco and of women's response to pornography. The studies were funded after a competitive process in which independent panels ranked grant requests on merit and awarded money to the highest-scoring applications.

At an Oct. 2 hearing, Ferguson asked NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni to provide information about the research's benefits.

Ferguson said in an interview Monday that he was seeking information about the 10 contentious projects. But when Zerhouni's staff followed up on Ferguson's request, a different list was generated. NIH staff contacted the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which co-sponsored the Oct. 2 hearing, and a committee staff member reported back with a list of more than 150 scientists.

Committee spokesman Ken Johnson said the longer list had come from the Family Values Coalition, a conservative group, and added that he did not know who originally generated it.

Johnson said that the committee was merely responding to the NIH's request for a list, and that it had not asked the agency to take any action.

"Our committee has not called for an investigation into these specific grants," Johnson said. He said the committee was conducting a broad fraud and waste investigation of NIH grant management, "but we are not singling out nor targeting these specific grants."

With the list in hand, NIH staff began their calls. "The intent was to notify them, as was only right, that their grants were on a list referred to at a public hearing ... so that they didn't hear about this in some other way," said NIH spokesman John Burklow.

He said that researchers were not asked to justify or explain their work and that it was NIH staff, drawing from grant applications on file, who would summarize for Ferguson the benefits of the research.

Aides to Waxman questioned why the list of researchers had been generated.

"I continue to want a definitive answer to where this list came from and want the Republicans to stop their witch hunt against researchers and research projects that don't meet ideological litmus tests," Waxman said in a statement issued Monday.

Several researchers contacted by the Los Angeles Times said they did not feel intimidated by the calls, including Bonnie Halpern-Felsher of UC San Francisco, who said she was called last week about her $1-million grant to study risky adolescent sexual behavior.

The NIH project officer "was on my side," Halpern-Felsher said. "She was talking about defending my project."

But aides to Waxman said they had heard from scientists who felt that the NIH calls might discourage scientists from proposing similar work in the future.

"Such inquiries may serve to discourage NIH from funding this kind of work ... because the additional scrutiny creates extra work for NIH staff and potentially threatens the entire NIH budget process with Congress," a scientist wrote to Waxman.

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Times correspondent Donna Horowitz contributed to this report.

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