Congress looking into National Institutes of Health studies

| Friday, January 23, 2004

The National Institutes of Health are coming under congressional scrutiny for a series of studies – including one on truckers’ sexual habits – that some members of Congress say waste taxpayers’ money, The Washington Post reported.

A series of hearings, including one Jan. 22 in the Senate, examined the institutes’ finances.

The trucking sex study, which was conducted by Emory University, was titled “Trucker Networks, Drug Use, and Disease Transmission.”

The school’s Web site says the following about the study: “With primarily male heterosexual truckers at their center, trucker risk networks include such diverse groups as: men who have sex with men including ‘truck chasers’ and sex workers (CB hustlers, ‘buffaloes’); female sex workers (CB prostitutes, ‘lot lizards,’ ‘traveling ladies,’ American and Mexican brothel workers, motel sex workers, street walkers/hustlers); female ‘truck chasers’; drug dealers/pushers/runners and pimps; ‘polishers,’ ‘lumpers,’ homeless, and hitchhikers; trucking company and truck plaza employees; home setting social and risk contacts; and other sexual and drug contacts on the road.”

Many of the NIH’s studies are worthwhile, Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said. However, “based on our knowledge of this one about trucker sexual habits, we saw that then and we see it now as nothing more than a waste of tax dollars.

“The justification that they used to appropriate the money for this study was the habits of traveling people in Africa,” he said. “And in Africa, truck drivers are among the only people in the population that are mobile. So if AIDS is going to be spread it very well could be spread significantly and to a large extent by truckers in Africa.

“But that’s not the situation in the U.S.,” Spencer said. “Everybody in America is mobile or has the ability to be mobile.”

Spencer said the trucker study had the effect of “potentially disparaging this occupational group.”

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-PA, led the NIH hearing before the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee. According to his Web site, the hearing was called to examine the current processes and procedures in place at the National Institutes of Health to avoid conflicts of interest. In addition, the subcommittee planned to examine two potential conflicts of interest that were raised in a Los Angeles Times article Dec. 7, 2003.

In response to the concerns, Dr. Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health, told the subcommittee the NIH planned to create a task force to review its relationships with private firms for potential conflicts and recommend changes.

The controversy started when several of the studies, particularly those on sexual topics, were pushed into the public view by the Traditional Values Coalition, a Washington, DC-based conservative group.

"We're not opposed to research, but research dollars are scarce,” Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the coalition, said on the group’s Web site. “Choices have to be made. Are we going to research finding a cure for juvenile diabetes or the sex lives of Mexican workers before and after they come over the border?"

However, The Post reported that Zerhouni had investigated the grants challenged by the Traditional Values Coalition, and said last week he thought all of those studies were of legitimate public health value.

Spencer said “the bottom line is – at least when it comes to that [trucker] study – it’s a waste of tax dollars.”

“I don’t doubt that some of the studies that NIH is involved in would be beneficial,” he said. “This one clearly was not. Had the proper peer review or background check – had that been done, the agency should have been able to find a more appropriate way, a better way to spend that money.”

--by Mark H. Reddig, associate editor

Mark Reddig can be reached at mark_reddig@landlinemag.com.