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Medical News

The Chilling Effect: How Do Researchers React to Controversy?

December 9, 2008

In 2003, 10 National Institutes of Health research grants came under intense scrutiny as Congress exercised its oversight duties regarding the agency's budget. Eight of the 10 NIH grants addressed sexual risk behavior, as did the majority of the more than 250 additional grants NIH subsequently ordered reviewed.

NIH reviewed and defended the grants, and none was de-funded, but scientists expressed concern over a "chilling effect" on future research. In the current study, the author asked principal investigators (PIs) whose grants were implicated to describe their research practices before, during, and after a political controversy.

Among PIs interviewed (random stratified sample n=30) and surveyed (n=82) between October 2005 and June 2006, most strongly agreed (32 percent) or agreed (39 percent) that the controversy created a "chilling effect." One-third strongly agreed (13 percent) or agreed (21 percent) that they were less likely to receive NIH funding due to the controversy.

Furthermore, 51 percent said they removed potential "red flag" words from titles and abstracts of subsequent NIH grant submissions -- words including gay, lesbian, bisexual, sexual intercourse, anal sex, homosexual, homophobia, AIDS, barebacking, bathhouses, sex workers, needle exchange, and harm reduction.

Twenty-four percent said changes went beyond language, including 7 percent who indicated research was reframed to be less politically sensitive, such as avoiding studies of marginalized or stigmatized groups. Indeed, 17 percent said they dropped studies for being politically nonviable, including research into the sexual health and/or orientation of adolescents; condom use; anal sex; childhood sexual abuse; homosexuality; and the use of various harm-reduction strategies.

While 25 percent said they were more likely to pursue funding sources outside NIH, all but eight PIs had submitted new NIH grant proposals. Only federal grants could support the large-scale projects envisioned, the PIs said.

"These findings provide evidence that political controversies can shape what scientists choose to study," the author concluded. "Debates about the politics of science usually focus on the direct suppression, distortion, and manipulation of scientific results. This study suggests that scholars must also examine how scientists may self-censor in response to political events."

Back to other news for December 2008

Adapted from:
PLoS Medicine Vol. 5; No. 11: P. e222
11.18.2008; Joanna Kempner

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This article was provided by CDC National Prevention Information Network. It is a part of the publication CDC HIV/Hepatitis/STD/TB Prevention News Update.
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