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Hit list on the Hill: insiders say a Capitol Hill "hit list" of controversial AIDS and sexuality researchers was circulated by mistake, but scientists actually on the list say it's further evidence that Congress is taking political potshots at their work.

In a political era in which abstinence-only sex education is heralded as the best--and sometimes only--defense against the spread of HIV and AIDS, it's no surprise that scientists who do more blunt sex-related research are worried about their livelihood.

Up until now, their concern could be discounted as little more than a fear of the unknown. But with a trading "hit list" of more than 150 AIDS and sexuality scientists now being circulated around Washington, D.C., it appears that antigay conservatives might be ready to make their move.

The list in question is a roll call of prominent AIDS and sexuality researchers who often focus on gay issues. And now some scientists say this list is putting their funding from the National Institutes of Health in jeopardy.

In an October 27 letter to Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, Democratic congressman Henry Waxman of California expressed his "outrage" at the list's existence. "After receiving this list from Republican members of Congress, NIH officials are now contacting researchers and raising fears that their research may be in danger of losing funding," he said, calling the tactic "scientific McCarthyism."

A call to the NIH by The Advocate was not returned, but the agency has said publicly that the purpose of its inquiries to researchers was to gather enough in formation on already-awarded grants to be able to defend them to Congress.

Indeed, members of Congress have been questioning NIH grants, with a disproportionate emphasis on those awarded for research on sensitive gay-related sexuality issues. At an October 2 bearing Republican representative Mike Ferguson of New Jersey asked NIH officials to explain how 10 certain NIH grants "contribute to America's top health priorities." These studies, according to Ferguson spokesman Bailey Wood, "included things like measuring sexual arousal to porno movies, spending $3 million on transgender research, and half a million dollars on mood arousal and sexual risk-taking."

Wood says Ferguson and other Republicans asked NIH for "justification" for the 10 specific grants. But somehow a list of 157 "questionable" researchers was sent to NIH as part of that request. "We had nothing to do with that longer list," he says.

An aide to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, acknowledges to The Advocate that there has been "an ongoing investigation of NIH-funded studies since last March," meaning the NIH's federal funded research. In October, he says, "a staffer on our committee was contacted about providing 'a list.' It was supposed to be this list of 10 research grants that was being questioned in Congress. But instead the staffer got it mixed up with a longer list of researchers that came from the Traditional Values Coalition." The longer list--compiled by the notoriously anti-gay right-wing group--got "mistakenly faxed to the NIH," the aide says. But he insists that it was simply a comedy of errors and that "we're not following people on this list; we're not investigating them. We're only looking into questionable grants."

When Waxman realized that the list sent to NIH had, in fact, been compiled by the Traditional Values Coalition, he fired off another letter to Secretary Thompson, saying "it remains important for HHS to clarify any role it had in the creation of this list." Thompson told Waxman that his agency had nothing to do with the list's creation.

Nevertheless, those scientists who are on the list say it is an attempt to cut funding to research that doesn't fit into a conservative Republican view of the world. "I've been attacked with unfair trivialization of ray work because of political reasons--it's that simple," says Michael Bailey, a psychology professor at Northwestern University and one of the 10 researchers whose work was initially being challenged. Bailey's research looks at sexual arousal in women with regard to sexual orientation. It involves measuring the sexual responses of lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual women to erotic videos.

"Sex research is hard stuff to get funded in the first place," he says. "If it involves gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered people, it makes it that much harder to defend." While he agrees that a "political discussion of scientific priorities is legitimate," he says the debate needs to be thoughtful and informed. "What we are seeing now," he says, "is just an attempt at the elimination of scientific funding for research on sex in general and homosexuality in particular."

University of California, San Francisco, AIDS researcher William Woods, whose name is on the list of 157, says he is reluctant to talk about it because of the atmosphere of fear and intimidation that such a list produces. He defends his work, though, saying, "I do careful, thought-out research." He also acknowledges that being on the list "is a threat to our work. It's certainly creating a dangerous environment. We're talking about losing much-needed federal funds."

Another researcher, who does work on gay men's sexual habits in bathhouses and other sex establishments in New York City, was more blunt but spoke on condition of anonymity. "We knew this was coming for some time," the researcher says. "It really is part of a conservative agenda to quash politically unfavorable research. It's a real threat to scientific endeavor and scientific findings."

Ken Haller, president of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, is also concerned about the list. "I just don't buy that this was all one big unfortunate mix-up," he says. "I think they are just backpedaling. This really smacks of an ugly far-right political agenda."

Haller fears that the episode could have a chilling effect on scientific research on two fronts. For one, NIH officials who approve grants might feel "hamstrung in what they can fund," he says. And researchers, he adds, might start practicing self-censorship, watering down their proposals in order to get their grants approved.

Worse, he says, is the "mounting evidence that the government is interfering with scientific research based on a political agenda. It's happening with disturbing regularity."

He points to several recent incidents. Earlier in the year, AIDS researchers were quietly being told by the project directors who fund their grants to "tone down their proposals. They weren't supposed to use key buzzwords, like gay or lesbian or men who have sex with men. They were told such language was 'frowned upon.'"

Haller also points to the fact that much information on condom use and sexual-risk reduction has been removed from the Web site of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And programs that deal frankly with sex and safer-sex issues are being defunded in favor of programs that push an abstinence-only message.

"Politicians with a dogmatic conservative view," he says, "are now setting the agenda for scientific research."

Dahir has also written for Time, Good Housekeeping, and Business Traveler.
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Title Annotation:Politics
Author:Dahir, Mubarak
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Dec 23, 2003
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