'Chilling Effect': Can Science Get Taboo?

It's no secret that entertainers sometimes self-censor on topics like politics and sexuality in their work to gain mainstream acceptance and better pay. But according to a new study, scientists may be getting into the act as well.

A sociologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., questioned 157 scientists who found their work at the crux of a 2003 political clash between several members of Congress, a Christian lobbyist group called the Traditional Values Coalition and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Of the 112 scientists who responded to the survey and interviews, 51 percent said they have since self-censored their grant proposals to remove "red flag" words, such as gay, lesbian, AIDS, needle-exchange or anal sex from their titles or abstracts. Nearly a quarter of respondents said they either modified their studies to seem less controversial or abandoned controversial grant proposals.

Joanna Kempner, an assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers, said the study attempts to quantify the "chilling effect" of political or ideological controversy on scientists.

"That controversy leads to a chilling effect is a claim that one hears often," said Kempner. "I thought we could actually study it and see if that were true."

At the time of the 2003 debate, members of Congress had asked the NIH to explain the medical benefit of 10 government-funded studies some called inappropriate (eight of the studies were sexual in nature) or a waste of money. However, a staffer accidentally sent the NIH a much longer list of 250 proposed "questionable" studies that was later found to be compiled by the Traditional Values Coalition.

Then-NIH Director Elias Zerhouni decided to review the full list of studies, anyway, and sent a letter in 2004 defending the funding. While no studies lost their funding because of their inclusion on the list, Kempner said her work shows scientists do indeed react to controversy.

Reacting to the survey's findings, the current acting NIH director said self-censoring should not happen, and is not necessary.

"We don't have a litmus test for words that are acceptable on our applications; we want people to rigorously describe, and precisely describe their work," said Dr. Raynard S. Kington, acing director for the NIH.

When Government Pays for Science

"I think it's important to note that Dr. Zerhouni vigorously responded and I think that sent a signal to the scientific community that we were committed ... we would be committed to study all parts of the human body, not just the parts you show the public," said Kington.

"We certainly didn't change our peer review process," he said.

Researchers at the Guttmacher Institute, a research and public policy nonprofit dedicated to reproductive issues and sexual health, haven't reported much of a change, either.

"I would say, in general, we have not felt constrained in regards to the public funding vehicles we have pursued," said Lawrence Finer, director of domestic research at the Guttmacher Institute in New York. "Despite changes in the environment in D.C., we haven't felt that we were unable to pursue funding."

Despite such statements, Kempner said her work still points out a problem with science and politics.

"I still think this amount of behavioral change is important," said Kempner. "It's important to understand that activists play an important role in shaping what science is done, and what science isn't being done -- no matter who the activists are."

Francesca Grifo, director of the scientific integrity program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington D.C., agrees with Kempner on this point.

"This notion of the chilling effect hits across the federal government," said Grifo. "It's not just the folks who are being funded by federal funds, it's career scientists as well."

Grifo said her group has noticed the influence of politics can dissuade scientists from studying anything, including wildlife, when economics or ideologies are at stake.

"Obviously, these things have always happened, but not at the rate or at the frequency of the last eight years," said Grifo.

"President-elect Obama has been very clear in a number of statements where these abuses of science must stop," she said.

Andrea Lafferty, executive director of Traditional Values Coalition (TVC) in Washington, D.C., sees no "abuses of science" but agrees that with the new administration, the content of grant proposals is likely to expand.

"My main idea is the NIH ATM machine is going to re-open in 09," said Lafferty. "It's some guys in their jammies at universities drinking beer asking, 'hey, how can we study how prostitutes spread disease?' Then they take it to the NIH."

Lafferty asserted that the list leaked by the staffer contained both "inappropriate" content, as well as examples of wasted funding for science.

"NIH has always been treated like a sacred cow ... scientists overall don't believe in God, and they don't want to be questioned," she said. "These people want to say it's just TVC but you take what we find is being studied, go to any grocery store and ask people what they think. Taxpayers would be outraged."

But according to Kington, the NIH's mission is to independently review each proposed study with scientists in the same field -- not politicians -- and to give funds to the best research, regardless of location or affiliation.

"That's one of the reasons why we have a world-renown funding for science, that's why we have accomplished what we have in this country," said Kington. "There's a reason why cardiovascular death risk is dropping and there's a reason why HIV isn't an automatic death sentence now."