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2003-11-05

Scientific McCarthyism: Is The Bush Administration Compiling a Hit List of AIDS Scientists?

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A list of over 150 scientists–which may have originated in the Department of Health–researching a wide range of topics related to health and sexuality, including HIV/AIDS, has been given to federal officials and is being used in attempts to discredit the researchers and challenge or revoke their federal grants.

Click here to read to full transcript A list of over 150 scientists researching a wide range of topics related to health and sexuality, including HIV/AIDS, has been compiled and given to federal officials by a conservative advocacy group and is being used in attempts to discredit the researchers and challenge or revoke their federal grants.

The list of about $100 million in grants was prepared last summer by the Traditional Values Coalition, which claims to represent 43,000 churches nationwide.

The list is being used by the coalition and its government allies in attempts to discredit the researchers and challenge or revoke their federal grants. The list is circulating among members of Congress and was forwarded to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is responsible for awarding the crucially important grants. NIH is now asking these scientists to provide additional justification for their work.

Last week, Democratic Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California denounced the list as an ideologically driven "hit list." In a letter to Health Secretary Tommy Thompson, Waxman said officials within HHS itself appear to have been directly involved in the list’s creation and demanded an explanation.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. A list of over 150 scientist researching a wide range of topics relating to health and sexuality, including HIV and AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases and adolescent sexual behavior has been compiled and given to federal officials by a conservative advocacy group. The list of about $150 million in grants was prepared last summer by the Traditional Values Coalition, which claims to represent 43,000 churches nationwide. The list is being used by the Coalition and its government allies in attempts to discredit the researchers and challenge or revoke their federal grants. The list is circulating among members of Congress and was forwarded to the National Institutes of Health which is responsible for awarding the crucially important grants. N.I.H. is asking the scientists to provide additional justification for their work.

Last week, Democratic Congress member Henry Wachsman of California denounced the list as an ideological driven hit list. In a letter to Health Secretary Tommy Thompson, Wachsman said officials within H.H.S. itself appear to have been directly involved in the list’s creation. We’re going to turn now to Judy Auerbach, Vice President for Public Policy at American Foundation for AIDS Research, known as AMFAR. Until recently, she headed the Office of AIDS Research at the National Institutes of Health. Welcome to Democracy Now!.

JUDY AUERBACH: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you start off by talking about what is known at this point about who has been targeted, how these lists were compiled?

JUDY AUERBACH: The list that is getting all this attention is as you mentioned, the list of over 200 grants and 150 or 180 grantees. And it appears to have been compiled by the Traditional Values Coalition. That’s whose claiming credit for it. It’s wrapped up in a larger set of activities that are all around sending inquiries to the National Institutes of Health about specific research projects and specific researchers involved in studies around HIV and AIDS, sexuality, and related matters. The list itself appears to have been a work in progress, as you mentioned in your introduction.

In fact, the $100 million total that’s being referenced is a little misleading because the list includes some grants that are defunct and in fact includes some names of people who are deceased. It’s a bizarre list to begin with, and we shouldn’t fixate too much on the list, but in the larger context of what’s happening around the scrutiny of peer reviewed, approved and funded grants in public health.

AMY GOODMAN: I should say that we ask the Traditional Values Coalition to join us. They declined. Also called the National Institutes of Health as well. What about when these grants are being discussed within the N.I.H.? People have said that Bush administration officials are sitting in on these meetings. Do you know anything about this, Judy?

JUDY AUERBACH: I know a little bit about that, yes. The way the funds are funded, I’m not sure how much people are aware of the process. It’s rigorous and complex. I’ll try to simplify. If you are a researcher, you have a good scientific idea up. You submit a proposal to conduct research and you describe your methodology and the theoretical basis for your study and how you propose to do the work. That grant goes to the N.I.H. The N.I.H. constructs panels or groups of reviewers to look at the scientific merits of that research. Those are scientific experts. Those are purported to be your peers. That’s the appropriate way we have conducted scientific review for many, many, many years. And those review — the review groups meet on a regular basis. When they meet, their meetings are essentially closed to the public, because the information they’re discussing is proprietary. It’s your intellectual property and there’s some decisions that are going to be made about funding. Those groups are not open to the public. They’re open to the members of the review group and the administrators of the groups as well as N.I.H. staff, who would be managing the grants once they’re awarded. If they’re award. What’s happened in the last eight months or so is that other federal employees have begun showing up at these reviews.

They’re allowed to — they legally are allowed to, but it’s very unprecedented to have people who do not have a direct relationship to the review or the awarding or the management of the grants to sit in on those peer reviews. And the perception amongst the people who are the reviewers and the N.I.H. staff is that these folks have been sent to monitor the discussion, to take notes on it, the grantees. The reviewers themselves are getting nervous they’re going to be on a list of people who are sympathetic to certain kinds of research or not. And so, it’s a mystery and it’s created a sense of concern amongst the folks because — who participate in the review process because it is really unprecedented, and it’s not clear what the purpose of this is.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of Congress member Wachsman’s allegation that the list was not just compiled by the conservative advocacy group, but was provided information by the Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.

JUDY AUERBACH: I think it’s easy to think that when you look at the list and there are notations. I have seen this list. There are notations throughout that refer to something being or not being on the H.H.H. search or not found on an H.H.S. search or not found in H.H.S. data. It looks to Mr. Wachsman and others as if the department either asked the Traditional Values Coalition or helped the Traditional Values Coalition, or whoever compiled this list, to do so, although it’s not straightforward and we don’t know that for certain. But as I said at the beginning, I think that this has to be put in the larger — this list has to be put in a larger con text in which there have been a series of similar kinds of inquiries that come through certain members of Congress, in particular, to the N.I.H., identifying — you know, whether it’s one, five, ten or 200 grants, the fact that they’re asking the N.I.H. to rejustify grants that have already been peer reviewed, approved and funded. These awards have already been made. The research is already in progress. Based on what appear to be ideological and political sectarian concerns, rather than scientific concerns, is just really not acceptable.

AMY GOODMAN: Judy Auerbach, we have just reached Dean Alfred Summer, Dean of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health, Professor of [unclear] and Epidemiology, at the airport headed to Hong Kong. We just have a minute, Dean Summer, of the more than 200 grants on the list, more than a dozen scientists are at Johns Hopkins medical and public health schools. What are you doing about this?

DEAN ALFRED SUMMER: We’re watching the situation carefully. We are reassuring our investigators that what they have done is entirely above-board, that their research, like all of the research we do — has undergone the usual scrutiny, as Judy Auerbach has already described the process, and that we would be quite concerned if anything was done that would jeopardize conducting what is essential public health research that has been approved through the traditional N.I.H. peer review process.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Judith Auerbach, now with AMFAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, used to head up the Office of AIDS Research at the National Institutes of Health and Dean Alfred Summer of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

That does it for today’s special production for the public radio collaboration’s, "Whose Democracy Is It?" We’ll be following up with a live online chat about the role of media and democracy this Saturday, November 8th, from 2:00 to 3:00 pm. eastern standard time from the National Conference on Media Reform in Madison, Wisconsin. Please join me and the Democracy Now! producers online this Saturday. For more information go to our website at democracynow.org.

Special thanks to Bill Busenberg for the invitation to participate in this year s public radio collaboration. We hope to see more Pacifica programming involved next year. For more information about the collaborative, see Who’s Democracynow.org. That does it for the show. Call 1-800-881-2359 to get a copy. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.


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