Certain Words Can Trip Up AIDS Grants, Scientists Say
April 18, 2003
Scientists who study AIDS and other STDs say federal health officials have warned them that their work may come under unusual scrutiny by the Department of Health and Human Services or members of Congress if its topics are politically controversial. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the scientists say they have been advised they can avoid unfavorable attention by keeping certain "key words" out of grant applications to the National Institutes of Health and CDC. Those words include "sex worker," "men who sleep with men," "anal sex" and "needle exchange," the scientists said.
HHS spokesperson Bill Pierce said the department does not screen grant applications for politically delicate content. But an NIH official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said NIH project officers, who work with grant applicants and recipients, were telling researchers to avoid so-called sensitive language.
Dr. Alfred Sommer, dean of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, said a researcher at the institution had been advised by an NIH project officer to change the term "sex worker" to something more euphemistic in a grant proposal about HIV prevention among prostitutes. The idea that grants might be subject to political surveillance is creating a "pernicious sense of insecurity" among researchers, Sommers said, adding that in the past, federal financing of medical research had been largely protected from political influence. At NIH, for example, grant applications are rated by independent reviewers, whose score determines whether they are approved.
A University of California researcher said an NIH project officer told him his application "should be 'cleansed' and should not contain any contentious wording like 'gay' or 'homosexual' or 'transgender.'" But when the subjects of research are gay men, "It's hard not to mention them in your abstract," said the researcher, whose project concerns gay men and HIV testing.
Congressional staff members frequently comb the CRISP database, which lists the titles and abstracts of federally financed grants, looking for topics of concern to the politicians they work for. Researchers said they fear the concerns of individual members of Congress are now being taken more seriously by HHS.
NIH spokesperson John Burklow did not confirm or deny that project officers are cautioning researchers about their language. He said that HHS "from a management perspective has a right to oversee NIH affairs" but that department officials "have not interfered with the awarding or renewing of any NIH grant."
New York Times
04.18.03; Erica Goode
This article was provided by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is a part of the publication CDC HIV/Hepatitis/STD/TB Prevention News Update. Visit the CDC's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.