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Fwd: Controversial AIDS grants under review -- Conservatives accused o f providing 'hit list'

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      Controversial AIDS grants under review -- Conservatives accused of providing 'hit list'



      Controversial AIDS grants under review
      Conservatives accused of providing 'hit list'
      Sabin Russell, Chronicle Medical Writer <mailto:srussell@...>
      Thursday, October 30, 2003
      �2003 San Francisco Chronicle </chronicle/info/copyright/> | Feedback </feedback/>
      URL: sfgate.com/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2003/10/30/MNG0B2M8JJ1.DTL </cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2003/10/30/MNG0B2M8JJ1.DTL>

      National Institutes of Health officials are rushing to complete a review of nearly 300 grants for researchers in AIDS prevention and human sexuality, despite the revelation Monday that the list of those projects was compiled by a conservative religious group fiercely opposed to such work.

      The list of federally funded programs was presented by the House Energy and Commerce Committee to the NIH shortly after its director, Dr. Elias Zerhouni, testified before Congress on October 2. He had fielded questions from Republican critics of 10 specific NIH-funded programs, including a UCSF study of Asian prostitutes in massage parlors.

      NIH officials had asked for a list of studies the congressional critics deemed controversial in order to comply with their request for more information.

      The list his agency ultimately received was drawn up by the Traditional Values Coalition, a religious lobby headed by the Rev. Lou Sheldon, a longtime vocal critic of homosexuality. A copy obtained by the Chronicle includes the names of 180 researchers and 289 different grants.

      Researchers in San Francisco said they suspect the review is part of a larger agenda by critics of AIDS research involving stigmatized or controversial groups such as drug users, prostitutes and homosexuals.

      "How the list was manufactured isn't relevant,'' said Cynthia Gomez, co- director of the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies at UCSF. "What is relevant is that research is being re-evaluated for its merit, after passing through a very rigorous process. ... The fact that the government is spending any time looking at these lists from groups with clear, biased positions is of concern. ''

      Spokesmen for both the NIH and the Energy and Commerce committee leadership claim they did not realize until Monday that the Traditional Values Coalition was the source of the list.

      Andrea Lafferty, Sheldon's daughter and executive director of the group, said she welcomed the controversy and believes it that it will mark the beginning of the end of wasteful spending on AIDS behavioral research. On Wednesday, she called for a Justice Department investigation of the grants on her list.

      "No question, it's a political hot potato,'' she said.
      Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, has denounced the review as "scientific McCarthyism'' and called the document a "hit list'' created by right wing ideologues. Waxman became involved in the controversy after his office began fielding calls from scientists who said they were being unfairly targeted in what they considered to be a campaign of harassment.

      In a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson Monday, Waxman called for an end to "these attacks on science.''

      But Lafferty labeled Waxman a "patsy'' for the scientists she called "grant traffickers.'' She said her organization had spent two years researching objectionable programs worth a total of more than $100 million.

      "These researchers are freaking out because their gravy train is about to slow down,'' she said.
      In the scramble that followed Waxman's letter, the House Energy and Commerce committee members said that there was never a plan to review so many grants. A group of Republican members had been raising questions about the 10 NIH-funded projects, but when Zerhouni asked for a list, an unnamed staffer turned over the roster drawn up by Traditional Values Coalition.

      "It was an innocent mistake,'' said Ken Johnson, spokesman for the House Energy and Commerce leadership. "Our staffer exercised poor judgment.''

      He declined to identify the staffer. "She feels badly enough about it,'' he said.
      In fact, according to Johnson, "the leadership of this committee has not asked for an investigation of these specific grants....There is no witch hunt going on.''

      Meanwhile, NIH spokesman John Burklow said the agency plans to submit a written report on the grants within about a week to the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "We're nearly complete,'' he said.

      After the complaints from the scientists became public on Monday, Burklow said, the agency stopped contacting any more researchers. He said the earlier calls were not intended to intimidate the scientists, but to give them a courtesy "heads up'' that their work was on a list submitted by the committee.

      The NIH spokesman said the agency had never been conducting a "grant by grant" review, but instead planned to report to congress on broad categories of grants, such as "AIDS prevention."

      Burklow suggested that, rather than targeting its own programs, the NIH review is designed to show Congress why it makes sense to support them. "This is an opportunity to explain to folks why we fund this research,'' he explained.

      It was a surprise to the agency, he said, when newspapers reported that the list had been developed by the Traditional Values Coalition, a group that has harshly criticized the agency.

      The NIH is nevertheless continuing its review, working off the coalition's list, because that is what the committee submitted. "When Congress asks, we respond,'' he said.

      E-mail Sabin Russell at srussell@... <mailto:srussell@...>.
      �2003 San Francisco Chronicle </chronicle/info/copyright/> | Feedback </feedback/>
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