Last month, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) conducted a site visit of an investigator at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), whose studies of sex workers have been the target of a recent inquiry by Congress. Although there is no hard evidence that the inquiry and the site visit are linked, the events have shaken researchers at UCSF and some at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The controversy centers on work by AIDS researcher Tooru Nemoto, whose projects include preventing HIV infection in Asian sex workers and in men who are planning or have had a sex change operation. HHS officials inquired about how UCSF was managing Nemoto's grants from the department in early January. In late March, four officials from NIH and another HHS agency, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) spent 2 days at UCSF asking about procedures and going "all over San Francisco" to hear scientific talks by Nemoto, says UCSF grants manager Joan Kaiser. She says that UCSF officials "haven't heard back" but assume the grants were in compliance.
UCSF officials thought no more of it until they learned last week about a 13 March e-mail memo from a House of Representatives staffer. Roland Foster of the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources chaired by Mark Souder (R-IN), raised concerns about two NIH-funded studies of sex workers--one of them Nemoto's. The memo argues that by attempting to protect the health of sex workers, the studies "seek to legitimize the commercial sexual exploitation of women." Foster's memo asks for the names of study section members who approved the grants and the scores they gave. Foster says he played "no role" in the UCSF site visit but is "interested in what may be found."
HHS spokesperson Bill Pierce denies that the department is targeting research on certain topics. "We do nothing like that," he says. But NIH program officials who handle grants in these areas are worried about the rumored surveillance. They have warned grant applicants to cleanse certain terms, such as "needle use," "transgender," "prostitutes," and "needle exchange" from their grant applications. "What's frightening" is that NIH staff feel grantees need to disguise their work," says Alfred Sommer, dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.