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Scientists may censor themselves if their work proves politically controversial.
Researchers avoid contentious language and issues in grants and papers.

Scientists whose work came under scrutiny during a political debate about work funded by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, censored their own later work, a new study has found. [1]

In July 2003, former congressman Patrick Toomey (Republican, Pennsylvania) argued that NIH grants funding studies on certain types of sexual behaviour were less worthy of taxpayer dollars than those on devastating diseases. He proposed an amendment to the 2004 NIH appropriations bill to revoke funding for five grants - four of which examined sexual behaviour.

Toomey's amendment was defeated by two votes, but after a congressional investigation later in 2003, NIH director Elias Zerhouni was sent a list of 250 grants by 157 scientists, most of which were for studies on sexual behaviour and drug use. Republicans involved in the investigation said that the list was sent accidentally. Zerhouni nonetheless investigated all the grants on the list and later wrote to Congress defending the studies.

Now, Joanna Kempner, a sociologist at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey, has surveyed and interviewed many of the principal investigators whose grants came under scrutiny. She has found that many of them subsequently used less-controversial language and, in some cases, changed the focus of their work to avoid such areas altogether.

Undue influence?

Of the 82 principal investigators who responded to Kempner's survey, half were changing the language of their grants and papers to disguise aspects of their research. The scientists would modify or delete 'red flag' language such as bisexual, lesbian or sexual intercourse to make their grants more 'politically viable'.

The results, which appear in PLoS Medicine, also reveal that about a quarter of the respondents no longer studied such topics. Four researchers even chose to change careers as a result of the political turmoil, she says.

Peter Bearman, a sociologist at Columbia University in New York, says the study shows that perceptions of the ideological climate lead scientists to try to avoid research projects that they think will not be funded, or which will stop them from receiving funding in the future. Bearman's work was not part of the controversy, but he too has faced criticism for his research on teenage sexual abstinence.

The study also reveals how the NIH - an institution supposed to be insulated from political interference - has been "tarnished by the Bush administration's pursuit of ideological purity instead of effective science", says Bearman. It shows that scientists whose studies fall under political scrutiny "fail to engage in the best science they can, for fear that proposing to do so will result in no support". This can lead to suboptimal science and the propagation of pseudoscience in its place, he says.

Chilling effect

In some ways it is not surprising if scientists "might be more cautious in describing their research so as to not find themselves on the front page of the New York Times" or the focus of legislative decision-making, says Raynard Kington, acting director of the NIH.

Changing and deleting red-flag language probably doesn't harm an individual scientist's grant, but it could slow the progress of science, says Angela Sharpe, deputy director for health policy at the Consortium of Social Science Associations, an advocacy group based in Washington DC. The group promotes attention to federal funding for the social and behavioural sciences and formed the Coalition to Protect Research in response to the 2003 controversy.

Kempner admits that her research has limitations. The work investigates a single event and the sample group might be biased toward people who are willing to talk about the incident and its effects. But she thinks the "chilling effect" on research might be even more profound than her study demonstrates.

The NIH is the largest funder of biomedical research in the world, and to some extent, politics will always be involved in its funding process, Kempner says, but in this case, "we'll never know what knowledge was lost as a result".


1. Kempner, J. PLoS Medicine 5, e222 (2008). | Article |