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No smoke without ire

Republicans have criticised the National Institutes of Health for funding a study into the political activities of tobacco companies. Rebecca Trager looks at lawmakers’ latest efforts to try to halt research that they oppose.

“If you want to reduce smoking”—and so cut cancer rates—"you have to understand how tobacco companies operate,” says Stan Glantz, a public health researcher at the University of California, San Francisco.

But Glantz’s discovery of links between tobacco companies and the Tea Party, the socially and fiscally conservative wing of the Republican Party, has led to accusations that the National Institutes of Health, which funded the work, is supporting political lobbying. On 5 March, Jack Kingston, the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee that determines NIH funding, wrote to agency director Francis Collins to request that the NIH reviews all of its grants within 30 days and halts anything seen as advocacy.

Kingston has also asked the inspector general of the NIH’s parent department—health and human services— to investigate several other grants to determine whether they violate lobbying restrictions.

Glantz’s history as a nonsmokers’ rights activist has led some to question his objectivity as a researcher. The work in question was flagged by another Republican congressman, Andy Harris—a self-proclaimed “Tea Party guy”—at a hearing of Kingston’s subcommittee in early March.

Harris argued that the NIH’s support for the research was “the use of federal dollars for a clearly partisan political agenda”, and he challenged Collins to ensure that the NIH only funds “real medical research”.

In response, Collins noted that Glantz has been an NIH grantee for 14 years and has “done some very important work” in the area of tobacco control. But he also declared himself “quite troubled” by the direction of Glantz’s work.

“We thought we were funding a different kind of research when those grants were awarded,” Collins said. However, he also cautioned that his agency shouldn’t be forced to “nanny” its grantees. At time of going to press, Collins had not responded to Kingston’s letter and review request.

Glantz is incredulous at the lobbying charge: “We are doing scientific research and publishing it in scientific journals; to call that lobbying is ridiculous.”

Glantz says the project set out to investigate how groups funded by the tobacco industry have influenced policy-making, and the Tea Party connection emerged organically. The work fits well within the NIH’s mission to seek knowledge that enhances health, he says.

Republican appropriators’ concerns are not limited to Glantz’s research. Kingston has identified several researchers and studies that he says the NIH should not have funded, including a $50,000 (€38,000) grant led by Catherine Gallagher of George Mason University to research health outcomes among young prison inmates.

There is a long history of lawmakers targeting research projects with sexual or frivolous-sounding titles and introducing amendments to defund them. Arguments in defence of the peer-review process typically prevail, but not always: it took the Sandy Hook shootings in December to put the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a position to resume funding research into gun violence. In 1996, lawmakers inserted appropriations language, backed by the National Rifle Association, prohibiting the CDC from supporting research that could be used to “advocate or promote gun control”.

Most recently, the continuing appropriations for fiscal year 2013 include an amendment restricting the National Science Foundation from funding political science research without explicit economic or national security implications. Under time pressure to approve a budget or face a government shutdown, President Barack Obama signed the bill into law on 26 March.

In response, the NSF has argued that federal support for the social, behavioural and economic sciences provides insights that can help the economy and environment, prevent illness and curtail conflict.

The provision has already led the American Political Science Association to cancel several events. “It will very definitely change and limit the work that is done in political science,” says Michael Brintnall, the association’s executive director.

Obama’s enactment of the continuing appropriations ended hope of averting across-the-board cuts known as sequestration. Insiders suggest that the 5 per cent cut to the NIH will amount to a 10 per cent reduction for research grants, given the agency’s existing commitments.

Greater competition for scarcer resources is likely to lead to more political attention on research agendas. And with Kingston—who is a cheerleader for sequestration and opposes federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research—in charge of its appropriations subcommittee, the NIH could be facing some tricky times.

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