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U.S.-funded research faces moral questions

Published Sep. 2, 2005

Spiritual mediums in Brazil. Truck stop sex. Risky behavior among African-American teenage girls.

Are they topics of which a better understanding might reduce disease _ or a salacious waste of taxpayer dollars?

A debate over government-funded health research coursed through Washington last week, as two lists of "questionable" scientists were circulated.

The Traditional Values Coalition and Republican House members composed the lists, which prompted the National Institutes of Health to call some of the scientists and ask for more details on their studies.

Andrea Lafferty, director of the Traditional Values Coalition, said the NIH "requires more adult supervision. Most reasonable Americans will deplore . . . these smarmy projects."

On the other side, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said the questions were "scientific McCarthyism."

Swept into the storm were three researchers from Emory University whose names appear on the lists. While they don't blame the NIH for responding to concerns, they said that what they see as an attempt to impose religious values on scientific research could suppress important studies, potentially costing lives.

Rebecca Seligman, an Emory graduate student in anthropology, is named on a list of 10 researchers compiled by the House members. The Traditional Values Coalition _ which put together a longer list of more than 150 researchers _ also referred to her study in a letter to Waxman.

Seligman studies spiritual mediums in a community of African-Brazilians, looking at the effect of religion and rituals on mental health.

Many mediums, who say they can be possessed by spirits, have had traumatic life experiences that might lead to mental illness without that outlet, which lets them sing, dance and counsel others, Seligman said.

Their experience is relevant to Americans with mental illness, who are often put in institutions or on medication, Seligman said.

Yorghos Apostolopoulos, an Emory sociologist, researches the effect of mobility on the spread of disease.

He has looked at groups ranging from migrant workers to students on spring break, but his work on sex and drug use among truck drivers raised questions from Lafferty's group.

Lafferty singled out Apostolopoulos' studies at the beginning of her letter to Waxman.

"If you think you are mad, wait until you see how angry the American people get when they discover that you and your allies at NIH have been using federal tax dollars to study "lot lizards' _ prostitutes who service truckers in parking lots," she wrote.

Apostolopoulos said truckers and those they encounter on the road probably play a significant role in spreading HIV and other diseases but that public health authorities have largely ignored them.

Apostolopoulos said that when an NIH official called him about the lists, he was shocked. The official wasn't intimidating, but the scrutiny came as a surprise, he said.

Ralph DiClemente came under fire for his research on risky sexual behavior among African-American teenage girls.

The Emory behavioral scientist has enrolled more than 400 of the teens in group sessions led by black women to see whether discussions about sex reduce behaviors that can lead to HIV and other diseases.

A quarter of new HIV infections are in people younger than 20, DiClemente said, and African-American teenage girls are at higher risk.

Group leaders talk about condoms, but they also discuss abstinence and refusing risky sex, he said.

Ignoring high-risk populations like African-American teenage girls could lead to more orphaned children, higher health care costs and lost economic productivity, DiClemente said.

Lafferty said nearly $100-million in NIH grants has gone to research projects that "reasonable people, even those with no particular religious or political perspective, would view as prurient."

Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said "We can't have moralizing ideology be an overlay for solving real problems for many millions of Americans."