A study published this month in PLoS Medicine, documents self-censorship of scientists in response to a political controversy. According to Joanna Kempner, the study’s author, the controversy at issue began in July 2003 when Patrick Toomey, a Republican Congressman, proposed the discontinuance of five NIH grants that were unworthy of taxpayer funding. As a result, the Director of NIH received a list compiled by the Traditional Values Coalition of 250 so-called unworthy studies that included Toomey’s initial five. Most of the grants investigated sexual behavior, drug use, and other topics that appear to have offended those with “traditional values”. In response, the NIH director affirmed the scientific value of each study on the list and all of the grants remained funded.
Despite affirmation from NIH, Kempner concludes that scientists on those grants responded to this controversy. Although most scientists polled for the study said that political controversy would not dissuade them from conducting research, many also admitted to removing “red flag” words from grant submissions, a largely cosmetic change. A small number of respondents reframed studies that they believed were “politically noviable.” Kempner describes this response as self-censorship.
Controversy about research may cause self-censorship, but what is the alternative? We wouldn’t want to bar information about NIH funded studies or dissuade the public from commenting on government-supported research. Quite the opposite – people should have access to searchable information about NIH grants and resulting publications. Individuals and lawmakers should be free to comment about government supported and all other research. The problem is not when political debate about science causes self-censorship of researchers, but when it causes censorship of grantmakers. In order to protect the integrity of science, we must insulate the review and rewarding of research funding from undue political influence. Only then can we foster both political debate about science and the research itself.