(Self)Censorship on Sex Grants

Five years ago, the U.S. Congress sent a shudder through the biomedical research community when lawmakers came close to pulling funding for four National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants on sexual behavior. The controversy widened when a conservative group circulated a list of about 200 grants on sex- and AIDS-related topics and NIH scrambled to defend the research. The brouhaha is back in the news this week thanks to a survey published in PLoS Medicine of how 82 of these researchers responded. Sociologist Joanna Kempner of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, found that half changed wording in their grants to avoid scrutiny, for example changing "sex workers" to "women at risk."

Although Kempner calls this "self-censorship," many of these reseachers weren't acting entirely on their own—they were urged to whitewash their abstracts by frantic NIH officials so that critics wouldn't find them in NIH's grants database. One implication is that it is now harder for fellow researchers to look up what NIH is funding on, say, needle exchange. Also troubling is that about a quarter of the survey respondents stopped studying certain topics.