Oops! Congressional “mistake” prompts NIH review

A mistake by a Congressional staff member ignited a review of research projects approved by the National Institutes of Health. But despite what U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) called “scientific McCarthyism,” it turned out Congress had not declared war on the NIH approval process.

During an Oct. 2 oversight hearing, several U.S. representatives questioned the health value to the nation of several studies approved by the NIH. Some time after that hearing, someone from Congress sent the agency a list of hundreds of questionable projects.
The exact source was initially unknown, and the agency assumed it was being asked to justify those projects to Congress. So it began to undertake a review of those studies.

A few days after the list was sent, the sender was revealed as a mere staff member for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, whose Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations has been reviewing the NIH grant-approval process. The list, furthermore, had not been prepared by the committee, but by an organization called the Traditional Values Coalition (TVC), which claims to represent 43,000 churches across the nation.

Following are just a few of the studies cited by the TVC list:

• $333,045 to study the “sex and drug networks of U.S. long-haul truckers (studies gay truckers & prostitutes along the way)”

• $1,134,105 for “[i]nterventions for sex workers in two clinics in Mumbai, India”

• $1,108,550 to “describe drug use and HIV related behaviors among Asian female commercial sex workers at massage parlors (Asian masseuses) in San Francisco” and to “develop a conceptual model for intervention specific to masseuses”

• $700,618 to “compare sex behaviors of Mexican immigrants in a receiving city in the Southeastern U.S. to sex behaviors in two send in communities in Mexico; analyzes migration related determinants of sexual behaviors; includes analyses of usage of prostitution and gay sex encounters”

• $147,000 to study “genital arousal of lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual women as they view pornographic videos”

• $1,289,412 to “address methamphetamine abuse among adolescents, young adults in northern Thailand; examines sex & drug networks; to reduce ‘risk behaviors'”

• $1,270,285 to promote “‘Body Empowerment Theory’, the female condom, & ‘sexual risk reduction kits’ to women who use drugs”

Ken Johnson, spokesman for the House committee, told the Baltimore Sun that the staff member had sent the list by mistake and had “exercised poor judgment.”

“You’ve got nameless, faceless bureaucrats funding bizarre stuff, inappropriate stuff,” said Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the TVC, in the Chronicle of Higher Education online’s daily news of Oct. 31. “There needs to be accountability at the NIH.”

“We are not targeting these grants,” Johnson said, adding it was “much ado about nothing.”

Regardless of the origin, John T. Burkow, NIH spokesman, told the Chronicle that the agency would give Congress a general — but not detailed — explanation of the research projects on the TVC list “very soon.”