Waxman Expresses "Outrage" Over 'Hit List;' The Scientific Community Reacts
On October 27, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), Ranking Member of the House Committee on Government Reform, sent a letter to Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Tommy Thompson expressing his “outrage” regarding the “existence of a ‘hit list’ identifying more that 150 scientists researching HIV/AIDS, human sexuality, and risk taking behaviors” that are supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Waxman’s letter was prompted by the numerous calls he began receiving from researchers and scientists who had been notified by NIH program officers that their names were on a list of “HHS Grant Projects” that had been transmitted to the NIH from the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The Committee has congressional oversight over the agency. (See Update, October 20, 2003).
NIH officials began notifying researchers about the list and the congressional interest in their grants. According to the agency, it was not their intent to “threaten” the scientific community, as has been alleged, but to make researchers aware of the list and the possibility of additional scrutiny by the Congressional investigators.
There is precedent for the agency’s concern. Earlier in July, Rep. Pat Toomey (R-PA) offered an amendment to the House Labor, Health and Human Services, Education Appropriations bill to rescind funding for five specific grants. The amendment was narrowly defeated by two votes. (See Update, July 14, 2003).
Waxman, who defended sexual behavior and function research at an October 2 joint hearing of the House panel and the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, observed that what was “most disturbing” about the list is that it “appears” that it “may have originated within HHS itself. . . . This ‘hit list’ appears to be part of a calculated effort to subvert science and scientists at NIH to a right-wing ideological agenda,” noted Waxman. (See Update, October 6, 2003). In the letter, Waxman references the October 2 hearing and indicated that “several Republican members of Congress repeatedly asked NIH Director Elias Zerhouni about several peer-reviewed grants that they described as ‘provocative.”
The ‘hit list’ to which Waxman is referring is titled “HHS Grants Projects” and lists the research director, institution, project title, project duration, and funding agency. In addition, several of the entries are accompanied by notations “that apparently illustrate what those who put the list together find objectionable,” Waxman noted. “More than 250 grants from more than 150 senior investigators are on the list . . . Institutions sponsoring the grants are among the most distinguished in the country,” he observes.
“When the list was passed to the NIH from Republicans in the Energy and Commerce Committee several weeks ago, it was not accompanied by any official request for review,” Waxman further commented. According to the Congressman, he is not aware of any plans to hold hearings or audits, and there is “nothing in writing about what the members intend to do with the list.”
While the list came to NIH from Congress, Waxman stresses that “it is very unlikely that such a list originated in Congress. In fact, there are strong clues that this was an inside job. Officials within HHS itself appear to have been directly involved in the creation of this list.” He notes that some of the information on the list is not publicly accessible. HHS officials have denied any role in putting together the list and have stated all of the information is available through two public databases.
In an Associated Press story following the release of Waxman’s letter to Thompson, the Traditional Values Coalition (TVC), a lobbying group opposed to homosexuality and abortion, in an effort to deflect attention from the Energy and Commerce Committee, claimed responsibility for generating the list. While a list is currently posted on their website, when the story broke it had not been posted. Additionally, the list on the website is not the list sent to the NIH from the House panel.
In a subsequent October 28 letter to Thompson, Waxman informed the Secretary of TVC’s claim and stated, “Notwithstanding the Coalition’s statement, it remains important for HHS to clarify any role it had in the creation of this list.” Waxman also noted that since sending the October 27 letter, he had learned that some “financial data about NIH grants is publicly accessible on the web site. However, the information at this location does not match what is on the list,” he remarked further.
Waxman reiterated his request that the Secretary investigate “whether anyone at HHS played any role in the creation of this list.” He also requested:
1. A list of dates and times of all meetings and phone calls between HHS officials and employees of the TVC, as well as a list of topics discussed and the information exchanged, since January 2001.
2. Copies of all correspondence, e-mails, faxes, computer files, and any other information exchanged between HHS officials and the TVC since January 2001.
Waxman requested a response from the Secretary by November 8th.
The Scientific Community Reacts
Reaction to these developments from the scientific community has been quick. A number of groups have spoken out and individual researchers have defended their projects from the attacks by the TVC. COSSA Executive Director Howard Silver has noted that there are groups in this country who “want to keep their heads in the sand” when it comes to behaviors they don’t like. “Given the AIDS pandemic, the significant numbers of people with STDs, and the volatile mix of drug, sex, and disease, this research is necessary,” he added. “There is a vital public health interest in these studies and they deserve and merit government support,” Silver concluded. This support is provided by NIH through a merit review process that has made the Institutes the premier biomedical and behavioral research agency in the world.
Norman B. Anderson, Chief Executive Officer of the American Psychological Association (APA) and the first Director of the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR), reiterated the value of the research being conducted by the NIH, noting that examining the "behaviors of at-risk research being conducted by the NIH, noting that examining the "behaviors of at-risk populations, such as prostitutes and drug users is crucial to public health. . . This research is absolutely necessary to fully understand how sexually-transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS, are spread from high-risk communities to those traditionally considered low-risk. This research is also necessary if we are to continue our national and international efforts to prevent these diseases," Anderson declared. Other reactions included:
The spread of HIV/AIDS, drug abuse, and other public health crises cause tremendous human suffering all over the world. If we're ever going to get a handle on these issues and help to improve human well-being, we must learn more about them through high-quality, peer-reviewed research," said Alan I. Leshner, Chief Executive Officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Executive Publisher of its journal, Science. "The question of whether or not such behaviors are moral is irrelevant. They occur frequently and they are key factors in the spread of disease. We must have the courage, as scientists and citizens, to understand and confront them. Society deserves no less," he emphasized.
“The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) is deeply concerned about news reports implying that some 200 NIH-funded research grants on controversial, but critically important public health issues, largely dealing with sexual behaviors, are being subjected to extraordinary scrutiny as a result of pressure from either members of Congress or private advocacy groups,” said AAMC President Jordan J. Cohen. “While congressional oversight of the merit review process plays an essential role in ensuring appropriate accountability for the nation's investment in scientific research, the integrity of the oversight processes themselves should never be compromised by intrusion of extraneous sectarian or ideological issues.”
National Alliance to Support Sexual Health Research and Policy
In July, just prior to the introduction of the amendment by Rep. Toomey, several of the organizations within the behavioral and social science community, along with several women’s health organizations, began discussions on forming a coalition, “The National Alliance to Support Sexual Health Research and Policy,” to monitor and support issues related to sexual research and health. COSSA, along with APA, is taking the lead to bring these communities together with other scientific, public health, and advocacy organizations to work to educate policymakers about the public health relevance of research into sexual health and behaviors and the value of utilizing this research to make sound public health policy. For more information about the Alliance contact: Angela Sharpe (COSSA) at (202) 842-3525 or Karen Studwell (APA) at (202) 336-5585.