- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 3, 2003

The editor of a major medical journal has denounced attacks by members of Congress on government-funded sexual research projects, saying he fears political pressures could intimidate scientists into abandoning their studies.

In an editorial in today’s New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Jeffrey Drazen defends the research and chastises Congress for playing politics with science.

“It is of immense concern that over the past year the NIH has had to deal with about one request per week from members of Congress concerning the details of specific grants,” wrote Dr. Drazen, the journal’s editor in chief.

In July, the House of Representatives came two votes short of passing legislation sponsored by Rep. Patrick J. Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican, that would have rescinded funding for the National Institutes of Health that was granted to researchers for five projects focused on the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS, drug abuse and risk-taking behaviors.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee asked the NIH to justify a list of approximately 200 studies it had funded, most consisting of research looking at how behavior among prostitutes, homosexuals and adolescents contributed to the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexual diseases.

Dr. Drazen told United Press International his decision to write the editorial was based on his concern that scientists involved in this line of research might feel pressured to focus on other areas.

“If a scientist works really hard to get a grant in an area and feels that it becomes a political football, they’re going to shy away from that kind of work,” he said. “We don’t want scientists to feel that way about their work. This is an important area, and we want to make sure the research gets done.”

Dr. Drazen said the attacks have been driven by a lobbying group called the Traditional Values Coalition, a religious conservative group that put together the list of studies used by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“Millions of people around the globe will succumb to [AIDS], and understanding how to curb the epidemic is crucial,” Dr. Drazen said in the editorial he wrote with Dr. Julie Ingelfinger, deputy editor of the journal. “Knowledge of human behavior and how to modify it is essential if AIDS is to be stopped. It is just such research that the Traditional Values Coalition would end.”

The Washington-based coalition accused the NIH of wasting money on frivolous research and not exercising appropriate review methods to ensure that only sound scientific studies get funded.

“NIH has been able to fund money left and right. … It’s been a federal ATM machine,” said Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the coalition. “We’re saying we want researchers to be accountable but researchers in this field don’t want to be accountable. … They think they’re better than the taxpayers.”

Mrs. Lafferty said Dr. Drazen’s “arrogance and self-righteousness is appalling,” and cited a much-criticized Northwestern University study of sexual arousal — funded with $147,000 from the NIH — as evidence of the need for oversight.

“The layperson, the taxpayer, they can see that funding a study on women watching erotic videos is a waste of tax dollars,” she said.

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