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Gov't Research: The Two Edged Sword Of Activists On Funding

Joanna KempnerInside Higher Ed reported online that perhaps sociologists are changing their proposals due to controversy — especially when the topic of a given study involves sex. At a recent conference of the American Medical Association (AMA), Joanna Kempner (research associate at the Princeton University Center for Health and Wellbeing) gave a presentation on her ongoing research — explaining what happens when sexuality-related research is attacked by politicians.

The name of Joanna Kempner’s session was entitled “Erections, Mounting and AIDS: Incestuous Gay Monkey Sex (or seven words you can’t write in your NIH grant).” Although the title of the session drew laughter from many at the AMA conference, Inside Higher Ed reported that Kempner’s paper left many worried.

Kempner studied 162 researchers who in 2003 either had their research questioned by lawmakers who tried (and almost succeeded in the House of Representatives) to have their projects blocked for support from the NIH or whose work appeared on what became known as “the hit list” of projects for which the Traditional Values Coalition tried to generate opposition. The research projects – all of which had been approved through the peer review process at the NIH – involved such topics as prostitution, gay sex, unsafe sexual acts, and drug use. Kempner interviewed some of the researchers and sent an e-mail survey to all of them.

While she is still analyzing the results, early findings suggest that the experience of being a target has led some of the scholars to rethink their work or careers. Generally, she found that scholars fell into three, roughly equal groups: those who were proud of their work and who viewed being a target as “a badge of honor,” those who were scared and nervous about the future of their work and careers, and those who had a mix of reactions.

For those who had fears and concerns, there was a real impact on their subsequent decisions, Kempner said. Nearly half said that they took steps to either lower their profile or to change the language in their projects to disguise those qualities that would attract criticism. As one scholar told Kempner of the change, “I do not study sex workers. I study women at risk.” About a quarter said that they had decided to seek funds from non-federal sources in the future, seeking to avoid controversy. This choice is significant, Kempner said, because the NIH is among the better sources of funds for large projects.

Smaller numbers reported more dramatic changes. Some said that they were just making different selections from among their potential projects. A researcher who had plans to study teenagers and anal sex or to study married heterosexual couples decided on the latter. One scholar left the United States. Another left academe. All in all, Kempner said that she saw real evidence of self-censorship in various forms.

Andrea LaffertyThe Traditional Values Coalition (TVC) is pleased. On their website, Director Andrea Lafferty was quoted as saying in their article TVC Helps Nix Taxpayer-funded Sex Studies:

Our work is clearly having an effect. By exposing over a hundred million dollars of senseless sex studies that have no bearing on public health, we’ve been able to defend the American taxpayer from having his hard-earned dollars spent on Indian transvestites or the behavior of truck-stop prostitutes. Let private foundations fund this nonsense.

The “nonsense” research can provide useful information on how to reach certain demographic groups, such as transgender sex workers. If one knows and understands the behaviors and attitudes of transgender sex workers, then one can develop strategies to minimize the spread of HIV/AIDS in and by that community.

Inside Higher Ed made a point on the viewpoints of activists on government funded research:

While many of those criticized at the session are social conservatives, the speakers were careful to note that the issues they were raising did not fall neatly into a liberal/conservative divide. Kempner noted that some of the same problems of scientists avoiding certain topics have other sources. Two examples she cited were the way many social scientists are hesitant to do work on race and intelligence in the wake of the controversy over The Bell Curve, or the way many scientists avoid work that might make them the targets of animal research activists.

[Steven] Epstein [professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego] noted that one response to the conservative political attacks on sexuality research has been to rally around “the autonomy of science and peer review.” Indeed the lobbyists and lawmakers who have fought off attempts to bar certain studies have focused almost exclusively on that argument, rather than defending the studies in question. Epstein said that there was “obvious strategic appeal” to this approach.

But he added that peer review “does not always get us Truth with a capital T.”

He noted, for example, that many scholars who would jeer the Traditional Values Coalition for questioning peer review decisions cheered on AIDS activists who in the 1980s questioned why peer review teams were slow to put money into AIDS studies. Many scientists and activists today say that those activists – and the breast cancer activists who followed them – used citizen power effectively and to society’s benefit to question scientific decision making.

Activism is a two-edged sword. The lesson is that if one cares about an issue that involves government funding, activists can have an impact on how government money is spent. And, it doesn’t matter if the activists are HIV/AIDS activists, or if the activists are from the TVC — they can have an impact.

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