Sociologists are. Or so says Inside Higher Ed.
Sociologists — especially those who study sexuality — have for years done research that was considered controversial or troublesome by politicians or deans. Many scholars are proud of following their research ideas where they lead — whatever others may think. But at a session Monday at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, sociologists considered the possibility that some of their colleagues may feel enough heat right now that they are avoiding certain topics or are being forced to compromise on either the language or substance of their research.
One paper at the session featured what may be the most eye-catching title of the meeting: “Erections, Mounting and AIDS: Incestuous Gay Monkey Sex (or seven words you can’t write in your NIH grant).” While the title drew laughter from the crowd here, the paper left many worried. Joanna Kempner, a research associate at the Princeton University Center for Health and Wellbeing, shared preliminary results of her study of the impact of having one’s sexuality-related research attacked by politicians. (In fact, the words from her paper title all come from words whose use was attacked by conservative groups.)
Kempner studied 162 researchers who in 2003 either had their research questioned by lawmakers who tried (and almost succeeded in the House of Representatives) to have their projects blocked for support from the NIH or whose work appeared on what became known as “the hit list” of projects for which the Traditional Values Coalition tried to generate opposition. The research projects — all of which had been approved through the peer review process at the NIH — involved such topics as prostitution, gay sex, unsafe sexual acts, and drug use. Kempner interviewed some of the researchers and sent an e-mail survey to all of them.
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While she is still analyzing the results, early findings suggest that the experience of being a target has led some of the scholars to rethink their work or careers. Generally, she found that scholars fell into three, roughly equal groups: those who were proud of their work and who viewed being a target as “a badge of honor,” those who were scared and nervous about the future of their work and careers, and those who had a mix of reactions.
For those who had fears and concerns, there was a real impact on their subsequent decisions, Kempner said. Nearly half said that they took steps to either lower their profile or to change the language in their projects to disguise those qualities that would attract criticism. As one scholar told Kempner of the change, “I do not study sex workers. I study women at risk.” About a quarter said that they had decided to seek funds from non-federal sources in the future, seeking to avoid controversy. This choice is significant, Kempner said, because the NIH is among the better sources of funds for large projects.
Smaller numbers reported more dramatic changes. Some said that they were just making different selections from among their potential projects. A researcher who had plans to study teenagers and anal sex or to study married heterosexual couples decided on the latter. One scholar left the United States. Another left academe. All in all, Kempner said that she saw real evidence of self-censorship in various forms.
Not surprisingly, those freedom-loving believers in “reason” over at Cato believe the taxpayers should be able to decide what is not studied, most likely based on whatever is the prevailing bigotry of the day. Not only that, but hell, controversial science should probably never be publicly funded.
Which leads to the only logical solution to the problem: If social science work – or any controversial scientific work, for that matter – is going to be done right, it cannot be conducted through the wallets of taxpayers. Just as scientists need the consent of human subjects to conduct experiments on them, they must have the consent of their funders if they want to be left alone. Which leaves sociologists with an important decision to make: Do they want to conduct science free of political interference, or sell out for the promise of abundant government grants? Unfortunately, right now the latter seems to be the more popular choice.
How about a stunning third way, allow science to be decided by peer review without political interference. Of course, if a political movement wants more funding into a topic, that’s great, and should be accommodated (the example of political action to increase HIV/AIDS spending is mentioned), but envision this world in which science is subject to popular vote. Would studies into evolution survive? Research into sex, or sexuality? Research into non-abstinence based sex ed? When one remembers the types of science that were censored in the attack that is the focus of the study, it was things like the spread of sexual diseases from prostitutes that worked at truck stops. Now, one could see how that might be of pressing public health concern, but all the critics could see was funding to study some of societies untouchables ostensibly for the purpose of diverting the wages of sin from their unholy acts. A very short-sighted and bigoted view, not just for public health reasons, but for the inherent lack of human decency. Basically, “we don’t like these people, let them suffer and spread disease.”
Could you imagine a science landscape in which each political victory would have science as part of the spoils? This is an awfully convenient position for Cato or any right-wing group to take. After all, if they could control what science based on what is “popular” or “non-controversial” through the purse-strings of the government, then whenever their people are in power only the science they like gets studied. Namely, where to drill. Isn’t that so much better than the current situation with scientists telling us about global warming and fossils. Heaven protect us!
Oddly enough in the article this position is criticized for two reasons I find bizarre.
Epstein noted that one response to the conservative political attacks on sexuality research has been to rally around “the autonomy of science and peer review.” Indeed the lobbyists and lawmakers who have fought off attempts to bar certain studies have focused almost exclusively on that argument, rather than defending the studies in question. Epstein said that there was “obvious strategic appeal” to this approach.
But he added that peer review “does not always get us Truth with a capital T.”
He noted, for example, that many scholars who would jeer the Traditional Values Coalition for questioning peer review decisions cheered on AIDS activists who in the 1980s questioned why peer review teams were slow to put money into AIDS studies. Many scientists and activists today say that those activists — and the breast cancer activists who followed them — used citizen power effectively and to society’s benefit to question scientific decision making.
Well, what about the gay-rights activists in the 80s fighting for research into HIV and AIDS? I don’t think that’s an example of politics leading to scientific suppression, and it’s also known as the standard of practice. What do you think the American Diabetes Association or the American Cancer Society, or whichever disease interest group you can name does? They lobby congress for funding into their disease of interest. How that gets compared to squashing research that involves icky topics or icky people is beyond me.
Second he says that it fails to defend the research on the merits. To which I say, this research was already defended on the merits! It passed peer-review and its IRB – scientists have looked at it, examined the methods and decided it should be studied and is ethical. A grant is then provided to study the project. Then some politician who thinks that gays, or hookers, or underaged over-sexed youths should be swept under the carpet gets pissed and tells the NIH to stop telling them things they don’t want to hear. If you ask me, the burden should be on the politician to explain why the study is scientifically unworthy – rather than just a shameless attempt to make hay out of right-wing paranoia about sexuality.
To compare the attempt by right wing “family values” organizations to squash research that attempt to prevent the sinners from suffering for their unrighteous behavior to HIV/AIDS activists who were arguing for funding to study a deadly disease that was being ignored because of just the same kinds of bigotry is absurd. But not quite as absurd as essentially privatizing all public research. Thanks Cato for upping the ante, and suggesting we eliminate the NIH.