Recently a study was published on the free science journal site PLoSmedicine that looked at the effect of political climate and controversy on scientific research. In particular this study investigated the effect on research regarding sexual behaviour, during 2003 more than 200 NIH-funded grants, most of which examined behaviours that affect the spread of HIV/AIDS came under attack as being “much less worthy of taxpayer funding” than research on “devastating diseases”. I would just like to note that none of the studies that had their funding subsequently reviewed lost their funding, so the controversy was not directly halting research, but it did have an effect.

So what kind of effects did it have? in this study multiple consequences were found, from simply removing potentially controversial words from grants to the extreme – leaving the research for more secure positions. Such self-censuring tactics were employed by close to half of the respondents in the survey sent out as part of the study. While some may see this as simply the price of doing science in the current political climate I see it as a disturbing precedent where political ideologies, independent of whether they have any scientific validity, are influencing the kind and quality of research being performed. This seems to be to be a first baby step towards the kind of society where scientists must carefully proscribe their activities to avoid harmful repercussions.

What other practices did the researchers engage in to avoid the notice of ideologues? Approximately 7% of those who responded reported that they changed the focus of studies in order to be less politically damaging, for instance studying sexual health in monogamous, heterosexual couples rather than single individuals who were considered to have more fringe preferences. Possibly more concerning a larger percentage (17%) actually discontinued studies they thought were politically “non-viable”. It’s not all doom and gloom however, approximately half of the scientists surveyed declared that no amount of controversy would discourage them from continuing their research and 37% felt pride at their inclusion on the list of studies to be reviewed and several researchers considered their role in the affair to be a “badge of honour”.

Resources

http://medicine.plosjournals.org/perlserv/?request=get-document&doi=10.1371/journal.pmed.0050222&ct=1

http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/313/5785/292?ijkey=zIglYpRwGQY36&keytype=ref&siteid=sci – Article showing where State approved censureship can lead, even in the modern world.