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The Executive Officer’s Column

NIH Peer Review Survives Political Challenge­—for Now

Social science research projects came under serious attack in July in the House of Representatives, when Representatives Patrick Toomey (R-Pa.) and Chris Chocola (R-Ind.) filed an unfriendly amendment to the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education (LHHS) FY 2004 funding bill (HR 2660). Their effort, which was only very narrowly defeated (by two votes), attempted to take funding away from five National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants, four of which involved social and behavioral research on sexual health. These grants—Indiana University, Kinsey Institute; New England Research Institutes, Inc.; University of California-San Francisco; and University of Washington—were already funded, most by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).

Coordinated work by ASA and other member organizations of the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) helped achieve this defeat. Had these representatives succeeded, Congress would have effectively circumvented NIH’s peer review system and assumed an unprecedented role directly managing NIH grant review. When the Senate took up its counterpart appropriations bill in early September, as this issue of Footnotes was in preparation, the social science community was anxiously awaiting—and fully anticipating—the “other shoe to drop” and was scrambling for inside intelligence as to which Senator(s) might act.

Poised to engage resources against a new challenge, but not knowing where an attack might originate or which grants might be targeted, the science community and COSSA had to hold in waiting our ability to effectively and quickly activate grassroots or other advocacy action along established “battle lines.” Any organized effort to educate Senators and their staff before such a possible amendment was offered would risk making an issue of something that might not materialize. The effort could potentially confuse and even backfire, if members didn’t have sufficient time to absorb the merits of our position on NIH peer review.

Fortunately, an amendment was not offered, and ultimately, the Senate passed its bill. However, the issue may very well arise during hearings by the House Energy and Commerce Committee or the Senate Heath Education Labor, & Pensions Committee. ASA and the social science community maintain a vigil against threats to NIH-funded social science research, and bolstering ASA’s efforts, the ASA Council in August 2003 passed a resolution opposing any attempts to restrict NIH support for high quality, peer-reviewed research, including public-health related research on sexual function and behavior. Specifically, ASA Council stated:

“[ASA] strongly opposes any action by Congress that would restrict the ability of the National Institutes of Health to fund high quality, peer-reviewed research and affirms its support for the ability of NIH to support high quality, public health-related research on sexual function and sexual behavior…. The ASA considers such actions to be a serious threat to the integrity of the peer review process and the independence of scientific thought, and represents political intrusion into scientific research. Such intrusion is not in the best interests of the American public, which depends upon the highest quality research in the development of scientific knowledge. We direct the Executive Office to oppose such actions publicly and to take all appropriate steps to help ensure these studies are not defunded.”

Four of the five grants challenged in the House address aspects of sexual behavior and function. But among the key points cited by the social science community as to the value of this research is its fundamental importance to human health and well-being. With members of Congress having neither the information nor the expertise to decide on the merits of funding specific research, visits to Senate offices were made to stress the importance of Congress not micromanaging NIH grant approvals and the value of research on sexual dysfunction. The latter affects millions of Americans and is poorly understood by the medical community. Sexual behavior research addresses the prevention of HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, and unintended pregnancy. But ASA also collaborated with the Adhoc Group for Medical Research Funding and COSSA to combat the ill-informed congressional action that would have put Congress in the awkward and inappropriate role supplanting NIH’s renowned peer review.

Past as Prologue

The 1991-1992 ASA Council had passed a resolution to strongly oppose the “totally egregious and unprecedented action” of then-HHS Secretary Louis Sullivan in rescinding an approved grant, the American Teenage Study. The grant had been awarded to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill following peer review and approval by the NICHD [National Institute on Child Health and Human Development] Advisory Council and the NICHD Director. The resolution characterized the Secretary’s action as “a serious threat to the integrity of the peer review process and the independence of scientific thought, and represents political intrusion into scientific research.” The House’s recent action presents the same profound threat, an attack aimed at behavioral and social science research and one to which ASA is prepared to be a “first responder” in the social science community.

We may not have long to wait. A study by former ASA Council member Linda J. Waite, at the University of Chicago Center on the Demography and Economics of Aging, may face the same kind of challenge. Her NIH-funded National Social Life and Aging Project holds significant promise to make a difference in the health and well being of Americans, and ASA stands ready to defend comparable high-quality science whose findings will be of interest and importance to sociologists, other scholars, policymakers, and the general public.

Sally T. Hillsman, Executive Officer