In recent years, a consensus has developed among federal policy-makers that our scientific funding agencies, and especially the National Institutes of Health (NIH), should be free from political machinations. It was understood that the NIH peer review process was a strong one, that scientists were the best judges of quality science and that the preferences of politicians should not be infused into the process of health science funding.
Challenges to the process
This long-held consensus, however, has come under challenge this year. This past July, Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) offered an amendment to the bill that funds NIH that would have rescinded funding for five specific grants--one was for a conference on sexual arousal and two others were for studies of sexual behaviors of older men and of risk behaviors of prostitutes. That amendment was defeated by a slim vote of 212-210.
APA's Public Policy Office alerted every office in the Senate to the dangerous consequences of political interference into the peer review process. APA and the broader scientific community worked to ensure that a similar amendment was not offered during the Senate debate of its version of legislation that determines NIH funding. With strong support from Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the Senate later passed the NIH funding bill without any amendments being offered that would have restricted funding for these grants.
Then, early in November, the Washington Post reported that the funding for approximately 150 NIH grants had been identified and challenged by conservative groups. The topics of these grants included research on drug abuse, sexual and drug-taking activities among minorities and adolescents, the effects of family structure on youth, and research into the transmission of HIV/AIDS.
Protecting research integrity
How should psychology and APA respond to these challenges? We should respond directly and with the strongest argument that the integrity of the scientific peer review process must be preserved, and, more specifically, that scientific research into risky behavior is critical to ensuring the public health.
In the area of risky sexual behavior, it is important that we continue to educate Congress about the necessity of studying the behaviors of at-risk populations in order to help them and to prevent the transmission of sexual transmitted diseases (STDs) and other public health problems. Studying the behaviors of those populations linked to the widespread transmission of STDs is the only way to control, and to hopefully defeat, a serious public health problem. Without such research and the applications of its findings, the spread of STDs will continue unabated.
A second important message that must be conveyed to Congress is the strength of NIH's research funding evaluation process. Outside experts from some of the country's most well respected research universities review the scientific merit of every grant proposal. Those funded are deemed by these expert committees to be of sound methodology and relevance to an important health issue. NIH has a strong history of supporting quality and critical research in the biomedical and behavioral health sciences. This research has provided important and life saving answers in the treatment of such illnesses as depression, heart disease and cancer. NIH and the research community need to be allowed to do their work in the area of sexual health as well. One thing should determine what research is funded--the validity and relevance of that research.
In a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, which was reported on in the Washington Post, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) called the tactics of the conservative critics of NIH research "scientific McCarthyism." Dr. Alan Leshner, a psychologist and chief executive officer of the AAAS, has also voiced his concerns about protecting the integrity of the research process. He told the Washington Post, "It is vitally important that we understand the processes by which public health problems spread if we're ever going to get a handle on issues as important as HIV/AIDS and drug abuse."
At press time there was no specific legislation that would restrict research funding or limit the role of the NIH peer review process, but even the small potential for mixing politics and science is disturbing. APA public policy staff will continue to monitor this issue closely and are working to form a new coalition with other science and health organizations to educate policy-makers about the importance of this research.
If you would like more information about this issue or on how you can join APA's Public Policy Action Network (PPAN), please visit the APA Public Policy Web page and read more about PPAN at APA Government Relations.