Sunday, May 18, 2003

A federal children’s health agency is funding a study of the sex habits of old men.

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) provided more than $137,000 for a three-year study to “provide the most comprehensive picture to date of the sexual behavior of aging men.”

New England Research Institutes (NERI) received federal grants of $68,378 in fiscal 2001 and $69,000 in fiscal 2002 “to examine trends in a range of sexual behavior.” The study is slated to continue through July.

A House panel wants the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to explain “how this provocative data about aging men’s sexual fantasies and activities will benefit hapless children afflicted with pediatric diseases.”

In a letter to HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, a subcommittee of the House Government Reform Committee has asked NICHD how much money the study will get, as well as “a full listing of all grant applications that address children’s health and pediatric disorders that were rejected during the period that this grant was funded.”

It is not the first time NICHD has been criticized for funding sex research. The agency, a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, previously funded a psychology professor’s study that paid women to watch pornographic videos while measuring their arousal.

The Bush administration’s continued funding of such research is disappointing, said Robert Knight, director of the Culture and Family Institute at Concerned Women for America.

“Congress appropriates money to help kids, and HHS grabs it to study old men’s sex habits,” Mr. Knight said. “It’s the same old shell game that was going on under Bill Clinton.”

He compared the HHS-approved sex studies with a Clinton-era project that said it had documented a genetic basis for homosexuality.

“We had hoped for a higher level of scrutiny of questionable projects under the Bush administration, but we are continually finding out that this may not be so,” Mr. Knight said.

“Different administration, same bureaucrats,” a House Republican staffer said on the condition of anonymity. “It’s the same people who were making decisions under Bill Clinton.”

NIH research grants applications “are evaluated initially by peer review groups composed of scientists from the extramural research community,” according to agency documents.

A second level of review is carried out by NIH National Advisory Councils to “ensure that the NIH receives advice from a cross-section of the U.S. population in the process of its deliberation and decisions,” according to NIH statements.

Documents for the study on older men’s sex habits do not make clear which NIH review panels were responsible for evaluating the grant application.

The lead researcher on that project, NERI’s Andre B. Araujo, did not return a phone message.

A spokesman for NICHD said the agency funds a number of research areas in addition to children’s health.

“It’s part of the mission of the NIH to understand all aspects of human health, including those related to sexual function and behavior,” NICHD spokesman Robert Bock said. “Sexual behavior is an important field of scientific study because it carries a risk of disease and pregnancy, has an impact on the well-being of families, and on the likelihood of divorce.”

Republicans were angered last year when it was learned that NICHD had spent nearly $150,000 to fund a Northwestern University study that paid women as much as $75 to watch pornographic videos to determine “what types of audiovisual erotica women find sexually arousing.”

That NIH-approved project was called “disgusting” by a congressman who said the agency rejected his request three years earlier to study whether the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine was associated with autism.

“The NIH couldn’t find the money to look into this relationship between kids with regressive autism and the mandatory MMR vaccine, but they can pay people $150,000 to watch pornography,” Rep. Dave Weldon, Florida Republican, said in December.

The NIH annual budget of $27 billion has more than doubled in the past five years.

Federal sex research turns “Uncle Sam into a taxpayer-funded Peeping Tom,” Mr. Knight said. “Wouldn’t you love to ask James Madison if this was the sort of expenditure he envisioned when drafting the Constitution?”

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