Feature

In July 2003, Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) introduced legislation to cancel funding for five peer-reviewed National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants, four of which dealt with sexual health research and one of which examined human interaction with a giant panda habitat in China. The bill failed to pass in the House of Representatives, but by a very close margin: 210 to 212.

In the face of threats like this, all psychologists--researchers and practitioners--must come together to support scientific freedom and behavioral health research, said Judith Glassgold, PsyD, at a symposium at APA's 2004 Annual Convention in Honolulu.

Glassgold, a practitioner in New Jersey and the president of Div. 44 (Society for the Psychological Study of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Issues), chaired the symposium, which included presentations by two researchers--Karina Walters, PhD, and Tooru Nemoto, PhD--whose projects Toomey targeted with his amendment.

It's particularly important that scientists advocate for scientific freedom in the current political climate, said panel discussant Isabel Fernandez, PhD, a professor at the University of Miami and a former health science administrator at the National Institute of Mental Health's Office on AIDS. Attempts to interfere with the scientific peer-review process "are more serious now than we've seen in other eras," she said, noting that behavioral and sexual health research are particular targets.

Walters, a professor at the University of Washington­Seattle's School of Social Work, knows this first-hand. Her targeted research was a health survey of Native American "two-spirit" people. The term two spirit, she said, includes gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Native Americans, but also goes beyond those terms to embrace the fluidity of gender identities in indigenous communities and to honor the social, ceremonial and spiritual roles two-spirit people originally played in those communities.

Walters' research particularly looked at trauma, risk-taking behavior and the spread of HIV in two-spirit people, including whether those with a stronger sense of their indigenous identities were less likely to take risks like unprotected sex and drug use.

When Toomey targeted Nemoto's research, Nemoto--a psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco Center for AIDS Prevention Research--was conducting an HIV/STD prevention study among the high-risk group of Asian American and Asian immigrant women who work at massage parlors in San Francisco.

Nemoto and Walters spoke about the experience of having their research misunderstood, misrepresented and dismissed by many in Congress. Speaking on the House floor, for example, Toomey said: "You know, who thinks this stuff up?...I simply want to make the point that there are so many far more very real diseases that are affecting real people."

Quotes like these, said Walters, "really point out the invisibility of indigenous people."

Walters and Nemoto also discussed the effect that the controversy had on their work--including time lost preparing for NIH site visits, delayed funding and personal psychological stress.

Two other panelists also took part in the symposium. Thomas Coates, PhD, the former director of the Center for AIDS Prevention at the University of California, San Francisco, who is now at the University of California, Los Angeles, described some of the many tools that sexual health research has contributed to the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Karen Studwell, JD, the senior legislative and federal affairs officer in APA's Science Policy Office, described APA's efforts to combat the Toomey amendment and future legislative attempts to restrict behavioral research. For example, APA has helped found the Coalition to Protect Research (CPR) with many other behavioral health research organizations, and Studwell encouraged psychologists to sign CPR's online petition to senators and representatives to support scientific integrity. The petition can be found at http://forms.apa.org/ppo/ppopetition/cprpetition.cfm.