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Science Gets Sacked | The Nation

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Science Gets Sacked

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Faced with inconvenient scientific information, the Bush Administration just hits delete. This according to an explosive new report by Representative Henry Waxman, which catalogues dozens of politically driven affronts to objective scientific inquiry--from the recent Environmental Protection Agency report that was purged of information on global warming to the biased rewrite of a National Cancer Institute web page that once debunked alleged links between abortions and breast cancer. The Administration "has manipulated the scientific process and distorted or suppressed scientific findings," says the report, precipitating "misleading statements by the president, inaccurate responses to Congress...erroneous international communications and the gagging of scientists."

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Jennifer Block
Jennifer Block is a New York-based freelance writer.

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The editors of Science, Nature, Scientific American and the British journal Lancet have said as much in the past year, as have the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, the American Public Health Association and scores of HIV-prevention organizations. The latter have been hit particularly hard by the abstinence-obsessed Administration, sustaining Health and Human Services audits, loss of funding and wholesale attacks on the notion of safe sex. In July 2001, HHS quietly ordered the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's condom fact sheet offline--it went missing for more than a year and reappeared nearly unrecognizable, no longer stating that condoms are 98 to 100 percent effective as HIV prevention or explaining their proper use. Also axed was a "Programs that Work" section, which cited several large studies finding that teaching kids the facts about sex doesn't make them do it any earlier.

The manipulation has extended to scientific research itself: As the New York Times revealed in April, scientists are being advised to "cleanse" certain words from their federal grant applications--basic terms of HIV epidemiology like "men who have sex with men," "sex worker" and "needle exchange."

And when all else fails, the Administration has simply preached: In February, a hundred CDC researchers on sexually transmitted diseases were summoned to Washington by HHS deputy secretary Claude Allen for a daylong affair consisting entirely of speakers extolling abstinence until marriage. There were no panels or workshops, just endless testimonials, including one by a young woman calling herself "a born-again virgin."

Groups on the front lines, such as San Francisco's Stop AIDS Project, are feeling the heat. Stop AIDS runs workshops with names like "Bootylicious" and "In Our Prime: Men for Hire" (which offers guidelines for "safe relations with escorts"), designed to prevent HIV among sexually active gay men in the Bay Area--whose infection rates are rising--not high schoolers in Palo Alto. But Republican Congressman Marc Souder has led a two-year crusade against the group, claiming that it promotes sex with taxpayer dollars.

Stop AIDS faced fourteen solid months of back-to-back reviews by both the CDC and HHS--each activated by Souder's obscenity alarm. The group finally got a clean bill of health in February, and CDC director Julie Gerberding wrote personally to Souder telling him the news. Then it got personal. Beltway insiders said Souder pushed for Gerberding's resignation, and in April, Souder aide Roland Foster e-mailed the CDC demanding data showing "the effectiveness of erotic writing and sex with prostitutes" as disease prevention. Within weeks, CDC auditors were flying back across the country. Yet again, Stop AIDS passed muster--one auditor said to a CDC staffer, "I would take my mother to this."

The group got sanctioned anyway. In one more blatant victory of politics over public health, the CDC wrote to Stop AIDS on June 13 saying that the workshops violated the Public Health Service Act, which prohibits materials that might "promote or encourage, directly, homosexual or heterosexual activity." Gerberding, in an about-face, wrote to Souder, "I, too, share your concerns," and agreed that Stop AIDS was in violation, putting its federal funding in peril. This reversal from Gerberding, a former San Francisco AIDS doctor, stunned AIDS professionals, prompting a late June letter to George Bush with 151 signatories charging "censorship and intimidation."

Welcome to the new CDC. Once a partner to HIV experts, it is now their hysterical chaperone--and a case study in the new, pitched battle between science and ideology. "A climate of fear and intimidation has absolutely permeated the agency," says Mark McLaurin, policy associate for treatment and prevention advocacy at New York City's Gay Men's Health Crisis. The CDC was itself audited this past fall. Key prevention officers there have been laid off or reassigned, and a number of high-level officials have jumped ship--most recently eighteen-year veteran Lloyd Kolbe, who was head of the CDC's Division of Adolescent School Health. "There's been a major brain drain," says one staffer.

In defending the attack on Stop AIDS, Roland Foster told the Washington Post, "We'd like to know why we should continue to fund the same programs if there is no proof they're actually working." A curious statement, considering that more than $100 million is being spent annually on some 700 abstinence-only programs that have no oversight and fly in the face of dozens of peer-reviewed studies that back up condoms, comprehensive sex education, needle-exchange programs and frank, community-tailored information campaigns. Still, that's the kind of advice driving policy these days. The CDC's new HIV Initiative, made official in late July, will divert $42 million from prevention efforts like Stop AIDS that focus on populations at risk. Those left in the CDC who remember their mandate to prevent and control disease--not sexuality--could listen more closely to the message of the abstinence-only cabal: Just say no.

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