Science Public Policy News

Congressional Briefing Highlights Sexual Behavior Research

Science Policy staff have been working within the broader scientific community for several months on ways to counter the congressional attacks on peer-reviewed research funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

By Karen Studwell

Science Policy staff have been working within the broader scientific community for several months on ways to counter the congressional attacks on peer-reviewed research funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). As we reported in the Fall PSA, there was an amendment proposed in July 2003 by Rep. Toomey (R-PA) that would have cut off funding for five specific peer-reviewed grants, mostly grants that had to do with sexual behaviors. In response, APA joined with the Consortium of Social Science Associations and 45 other scientific and public health organizations to form the Coalition to Protect Research (CPR), which APA Science Policy staffer Karen Studwell co-chairs.

CPR member organizations represent scientists, physicians, health care providers, patients, and advocates that support federal investments in basic biomedical and behavioral research in human sexual development, sexual health, HIV/AIDS and sexually-transmitted diseases. One of the goals of CPR is to educate policymakers about the importance of sexual health research, which it does through letters from constituents, visits with members of Congress and sponsoring congressional briefings for congressional staff and others.

On March 5, CPR, along with the Decade of Behavior and 20 other organizations, sponsored its first congressional briefing entitled, "Lost in Translation: Public Health Implications of Sexual Health Research." Speakers included psychologists Tom Coates, UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, Janet Hyde, University of Wisconsin, and Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, who served as the moderator as well as John Bancroft, director of the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University.

The four speakers addressed a crowd of nearly 100, including congressional staff, NIH officials and members of the broader scientific community. Leshner began the briefing with a brief explanation of the concerns that the scientific community has had with the Toomey amendment and the continuing congressional inquiries into more than 150 peer-reviewed research projects, and reiterated the importance of behavioral factors to the burden of many public health challenges.

Hyde responds to questions from the audience.

Hyde began her talk with an explanation of the 2001 Surgeon General's Call to Action on Sexual Health and Responsible Sexual Behavior that was published by former Surgeon General David Satcher and explicitly calls for additional federal investments in basic research in human sexual development, sexual health, reproductive health, as well as social and behavioral research on risk and protective factors for sexual health. Hyde later discussed the importance of sexuality in marriage and highlighted research that has shown that report of sexual dissatisfaction in marriage was predictive of divorce three years later.

Bancroft discussed the biological factors and psychophysiology of sexual health research and explained why it is important to understand the mechanisms of sexual arousal and the various methods used to measure sexual arousal. From a public health standpoint, sexual health research is needed to understand and prevent the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, unplanned pregnancies, child sexual abuse, sexual assault and rape and sexual dysfunction. The goal of much sexual health research is to help people control their sexual behavior and reduce the likelihood of unacceptable or high-risk sexual behavior.

Coates then discussed several case studies of successful prevention interventions that have addressed the transmission of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases in the United States and Africa. One especially successful intervention took place in Uganda through the use of the ABC program that encourages individuals to: a) abstain until marriage; b) be faithful; and c) use condoms. While the intervention has produced a dramatic rise in condom usage and reduced the spread of HIV/AIDS, it does not address the particular factors that impact the spread of HIV/AIDS to women. In part, this is because of the dramatic rates of sexual violence against women and for married women, who are likely to be infected by their unfaithful partners.

In response to an audience question about the impact that congressional inquiries have had on scientists themselves, Hyde explained that political pressure often comes in waves and she praised the courageous researchers who continue to work during these times of increased pressure. Coates was concerned that the current chilling effect not only impacts current sexual health researchers, but could also discourage future generations of scientists from pursuing these areas of research at a time when there is a greater need than ever for people in the field.

APA Science Policy staff will continue their leadership on this important issue by co-chairing the Coalition to Protect Research, which is drafting a petition to be signed by scientists themselves to speak out in support of scientific principles and the National Institutes of Health. Please visit the APA website to find out what you can do to let your own member of Congress know that you support the peer review system. You can find information at the APA Public Policy Office. Further information about CPR and its activities can be found on the CPR website. Please contact Karen Studwell if you have any questions about this issue.