Congressman Defends Tax-Funded Study on Truck Stop Hookers

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:21 PM EDT

Capitol Hill ( - An influential California congressman is defending taxpayer-funded studies on truck stop prostitution and AIDS conspiracy theories while denouncing attempts to reduce or eliminate spending on such studies as "scientific McCarthyism."

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Government Reform Committee, wrote Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy Thompson Monday decrying such efforts and accusing the White House of promoting such efforts.

As an example of the Bush administration's purported "attacks on science," Waxman cited an alleged "hit list" of research programs into "HIV/AIDS, human sexuality and risk-taking behaviors" funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The information was supposedly created by Thompson's agency for use by Republican members of the committee who want to eliminate funding for what Waxman called "provocative" research.

"This 'hit list' appears to be part of a calculated effort to subvert science and scientists at NIH to a right-wing ideological agenda," Waxman wrote.

"I urge you in the strongest possible terms to denounce this scientific McCarthyism," Waxman wrote. "Imposing ideological shackles on this research would be a serious public health mistake."

But a conservative group said Tuesday that Waxman did not even correctly identify the source of the information about which he was complaining.

Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition (TVC), believes Waxman is seriously overreacting to the list.

"Waxman's paranoid," Lafferty said. "He sees a conspiracy behind every tree. He's pathetic."

Bill Pierce, spokesman for Thompson's HHS, described the controversy surrounding the list, generated by Waxman's letter, as "sad."

In Waxman's letter, the congressman also urged Thompson to "launch an investigation to identify anyone at HHS who has actively participated in efforts to undermine peer-reviewed research at NIH."

Lafferty is offering to save Thompson the trouble by volunteering the identity of those responsible for the list.

"We've been researching this since the late '90s," Lafferty explained. "He's says it's with the help of HHS? Quite the contrary, we're the ones that uncovered this."

"This" is a list of $100 million worth of NIH grants for what Waxman called "vital public health issues." Lafferty described one of the studies, typical of those on the list Waxman believes should be protected. An Emory University researcher looked at "Trucker Networks: Drug Use and Disease Transmission."

"It examines truckers who have sex with other truckers of the same sex, they're called 'truck chasers,' and female sex workers called 'lot lizards,'" Lafferty explained. "So, we want to know, when people in Keokuk, Iowa, and Omaha and Buffalo are sending their tax dollars to D.C., are they sending them to study 'lot lizards?'"

The list of more than 250 NIH-funded studies includes:

    "Is Female Sexual Arousal Target Specific?" A researcher at Northwestern University received a grant to assess "the genital arousal of 180 lesbian, bisexual and heterosexual women as they watch erotic video clips of lesbian, gay [sic] or heterosexual interactions;"
    Scientists at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor got funding for "Paths to Promoting Teen Sexual and Mental Health," which "endorses sexual behavior and condom use among teens;" and
    Oregon State University received nearly $175,000 to study "Conspiracies, Perceived Discrimination and Sexual Behavior." The supposed AIDS prevention study described HIV as "a manmade virus" and a "conspiracy" disproportionately spread in minority communities as a result of alleged "racial discrimination in contraceptive services."

Academic institutions were not the only recipients of such questionable grants:

    The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia was awarded funding for "Popular Students' Influence on Peers' Sexual Initiation," a study of "6th graders who [supposedly] have sex, specifically how their 6th grade peers influence them to initiate sexual intercourse;"
    The Hispanic Health Council received taxpayer dollars to study "Socio-cultural Factors on Syringe Sharing and HIV Risks: An Examination of Social, Cultural and Environmental Factors in Syringe Sharing Behavior Among Illegal Drug Users in Guangdong, China;" and
    CONDAX, LLC, received a grant to complete testing on its "Kwikeze (tm) Condom System" under the research title "Effectiveness of Device to Simplify/Increase Condom Use."

"What it is, is bureaucracy run amok," Lafferty argued. "It is nameless, faceless bureaucrats at NIH who need adult supervision and think that funding this kind of stuff is appropriate."

While Lafferty said the programs should all be examined to determine whether they are a proper use of taxpayers' money, she denied that TVC set out to blacklist the researchers behind the studies.

"This was a list of things that raised red flags. We wanted it looked into. It's not a 'hit list,'" Lafferty explained. "We just want to know, we want to look at it and see: Are they legitimate or not? Let's have a public discussion."

Pierce corroborated Lafferty's assertion. "With just a little bit of homework, the answers could have easily been discerned because the organization that created the list said so when they were asked," Pierce said. "They've been looking at this issue for a number of years going well beyond this administration."

Waxman complained, however, that "there are strong clues that this was an inside job," claiming that much of the information included with the list "is not publicly accessible.

"Most of the grants are listed with their amount of funding, data not available on the public NIH database of grants," Waxman claimed. "However, such data are easily available on internal computer systems at HHS."

Pierce disagreed, calling the data "publicly available information" that anybody can get. "You've got to work a little hard to get it, but not that hard," said Pierce, who described the whole controversy as "a real shame."

"This is just another example of a completely politically motivated diatribe that essentially ends up being a waste of taxpayer-funded time and effort on the part of the department having to respond to this," Pierce said. "A simple phone call would have gotten all of this cleared up, and none of this would have happened.

"Unfortunately, this is a pattern. We get lots of letters like this," Pierce concluded. "They tend to be groundless."

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