In the fall of 2003 Margaret R. Weeks, Ph.D., got a call from her project officer at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Weeks, an anthropologist and the associate director of the Institute for Community Research in Hartford could hear the stress in her project officer’s voice. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) needed an immediate report on her study that recruits drug users to spread a message about how to prevent HIV/AIDS.
“We were two and a half years into a four-year study. We didn’t have findings,” Weeks told the audience at aids Science Day in April, describing her response. She said, ‘Give me anything you can.’ ”
Weeks and her project, which is affiliated with the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on aids based at the School of Public Health, were on what came to be known as the “hit list” of about 200 federally funded studies deemed by the conservative Traditional Values Coalition to be “prurient,” “smarmy” and having “little or no bearing on public health.” The list found its way to Congress, which demanded explanations. Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D., director of the NIH, looked into the studies and went back to Congress with a vigorous defense.
The project Weeks is leading recruits active drug users and trains them to become peer health advocates who can introduce harm reduction measures into drug use sites. Weeks was one of four panelists at aids Science Day to discuss the implications of this list.
Michael H. Merson, M.D., dean of public health and moderator of the panel, said the list made him think back to the 1950s and another politician with a list. “As someone who has his name on this list, I immediately recalled the words of Senator Joseph McCarthy,” he said. Merson appeared on the list as principal investigator of studies on drug use in high-risk settings and aids in China.
Panelist Judith Auerbach, vice president for public policy at the American Foundation for aids Research (amfAR), placed the “hit list” in the context of other assaults on science. She noted that the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a report in February that cited examples of what it called the administration’s distortion of science, and scores of scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, issued a statement accusing the administration of misrepresenting scientific findings.
Studies on air pollution, mercury emissions, lead in water and global warming—which affect key industrial constituents of the Bush administration—have been questioned, Auerbach said. Religious views have dominated discussion of condom use, sex and the sale of contraceptives over the counter. “All of this misuse or misinterpretation of science is happening in a very political context,” Auerbach said. “The goal of the attacks is to disallow certain kinds of research.”
“Some of what is going on is not entirely new,” said Kevin Cranston, M.Div., acting director of the HIV/AIDS bureau at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, “even if in a matter of degree it is entirely unprecedented.”
Ana Oliveira, executive director of Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York, said organizations in Washington and San Francisco have undergone audits of their grant funding. “The kind of threat and intimidation an audit represents is unbelievable. It diverts precious time and resources.”
Indeed, Weeks said her entire office mobilized to gather information for the NIH. “Everyone stopped what they were doing and helped,” she said. Apart from the waste of time and energy, Weeks said, targeting individual projects and scientists has the effect of chilling studies of controversial topics. “We absolutely cannot use this as a reason to shy away from this research,” she said.