Political Controversy and Research

There’s been a bit of talk about a recent PLoS Medicine article about the chilling effect of political controversy on research. The main conclusion–yes, political controversy surrounding topics including “the sexual health and/or orientation of adolescents; abortion; emergency contraception; condom use; anal sex; childhood sexual abuse; homosexuality; and the use of various harm reduction strategies” does influence researchers career and research decisions:

This probably isn’t news to anyone who regularly reads ScienceBlogs, and is probably one of the reasons why researchers in the life sciences and public health are mostly Democrats. But what interested me were the ‘survival strategies’ for researchers who didn’t change their research programs:

Paradoxically, researchers believed that by strategically self-censoring they could continue to receive funding for sex-related research. These self-censorship strategies existed on a continuum ranging from complete silence at one extreme to minor modifications and omissions at the other.
Most often, researchers tried to “game” the system by continuing to do their research as before while employing practices specifically designed to disguise the most controversial aspects of their research. Half (51%), for example, said that they removed potential “red flag” words from titles and abstracts of their subsequent NIH grant submissions. Deleted words included: gay; lesbian; bisexual; sexual intercourse; anal sex; homosexual; homophobia; AIDS; bare backing; bathhouses; sex workers; needle-exchange; and harm-reduction. As one interviewee put it: “I do not study sex workers, I study ‘women at risk'”…
Removing controversial words from federal grants is not a new strategy for avoiding controversy [38,39]. Nevertheless, most researchers assume that the Traditional Values Coalition compiled their list using a keyword search on CRISP (http:/crisp.cit.nih.gov/), the NIH’s public database of grants. Deleting possible keywords on subsequent grant proposals is not only a logical strategy; according to PIs, it is often recommended by NIH project officers. Most PIs described these strategies as cosmetic and inconsequential. Others found these practices more damaging, arguing that minor changes in language obscure the actual content of grants and make it harder to find “cutting-edge grants” in the CRISP database.

The irony is that, for those interested in assessing the outcomes of funded research (as opposed to hating TEH GAY!!), this makes it more difficult to actually figure out what’s being done. This is not a good thing. Then there flat out wasting of federal funding (italics mine):

For example, a sexuality researcher reported that they chose to forego studies on single men and women with minority sexual preferences in favor of studies on the role of sexual health within monogamous, married heterosexual couples. Or abstinence was included in a study even though, as one PI who used this strategy said, it has “been shown to not work”.

Sadly, the theopolitical right was successful in about a sixth of cases:

More often (17%), researchers dropped studies or chose not to renew studies that they (or their administrators) believed to be politically nonviable. For example, one researcher described how “we had written a proposal and it had gotten reviewed and we had gotten comments, and it was waiting to be revised and resubmitted. But we kind of sat on that and decided to pursue that a little bit later. And I think that was affected, that decision was very much affected by what was going on…because there was clearly, um, a viewpoint that, you know, that population of MSM [men who have sex with men], for example, was not something that…that should be funded”

Regardless of how an Obama administration will turn out, at least science policy won’t be dictated by the “oogedy-boogedy” wing of the Republican Party. And if you care about reproductive health, that’s a very good thing.
Cited article: Kemper, J. 2008. The Chilling Effect: How Do Researchers React to Controversy? PLoS Medicine Vol. 5, No. 11, e222 doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0050222

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1 Response to Political Controversy and Research

  1. mudphudder says:

    This is unfortunately not a surprise to anyone who’s been in science for a while–has written any grant or even written a paper. Although this story is a twist on a familiar story. Most people who have written a paper or grant will have at one point or another changed the wording in regards to the science or included particular experiments for the sake of an easier review. Although the peer review system has many advantages, one of the natural consequences is that one has to deal with the egos and opinions (scientific or otherwise) of one’s reviewers.
    However, in this case, the “controversy” was initiated by a politician that probably doesn’t know jack about science. This world is filled with idiots who attack various aspects of science and medicine (but of course take advantage of that knowledge when it suits their needs) in order to pander to certain populations/constituents. I think it is unfortunate that these scientists would even acknowledge the idiotic comments of politicians by self-censoring (although a practical thing to do)–which may encourage future pointless persecution as well.
    What I wonder about is the incidence of this kind of negative feedback based on personal politics from actual peer reviewers. That is the real sacrilege.

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