Congressman Attacks NIH Funding for Study on Prostitutes

Studies of sex workers and drug abusers are an easy target, and today a conservative member of Congress took pot shots at three such overseas projects—all part of the U.S.-funded effort to understand and halt the spread of HIV/AIDS. Representative Darrell Issa (R–CA) was successful in stripping the relevant grant money from the House of Representatives bill that funds the National Institutes of Health.

Issa, who sponsored an amendment to kill the grants, criticized them as repetitive and wasteful—saying it isn’t necessary to buy a $9000 plane ride to Thailand to observe prostitutes’ behavior. (One of his targets was an NIH-funded collaboration to examine HIV-risky behaviors among Thai transgender prostitutes and others, run by the Public Health Institute of Oakland, California, and Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.) All you need, Issa said, is a $3.10 transit ticket to go across town. Rather than debate this gibe, the bill’s manager, Representative David Obey (D–WI), abruptly accepted Issa’s amendment to the legislation—which provides $31 billion for NIH in 2009—and changed the subject.

The targeted three grants, estimated to total about $5 million, had cleared NIH peer review and are underway; one is approved to run through 2012. In addition to the Thai study, they include research on the HIV risks of Chinese sex workers and hospitalized Russian alcoholics.

Even though they’ve seen tub thumping before about specific grants, academic and biomedical groups were taken aback, It’s “a terrible precedent” that politicians would try to “second-guess the scientific peer review process on the floor of the House,” said Patrick White of the Association of American Universities in Washington, D.C.

“This is not the first time we’ve seen attempts to micromanage” NIH, says Carrie Wolinetz, spokesperson for the Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland—but “we’ve opposed it quite strongly.” Wolinetz thinks the grant-killing amendment will be removed when the Senate and House get together in conference later to produce a final version of this appropriation bill.