'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."

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