Sociologists — especially those who study sexuality — have for years done research that was considered controversial or troublesome by politicians or deans. Many scholars are proud of following their research ideas where they lead — whatever others may think. But at a session Monday at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, sociologists considered the possibility that some of their colleagues may feel enough heat right now that they are avoiding certain topics or are being forced to compromise on either the language or substance of their research.
The problems come from a variety of sources, the scholars here said: from politicians, from institutional review boards on their own campuses, and from too narrow a definition of what “good science” may be.
One paper at the session featured what may be the most eye-catching title of the meeting: “Erections, Mounting and AIDS: Incestuous Gay Monkey Sex (or seven words you can’t write in your NIH grant).” While the title drew laughter from the crowd here, the paper left many worried. Joanna Kempner, a research associate at the Princeton University Center for Health and Wellbeing, shared preliminary results of her study of the impact of having one’s sexuality-related research attacked by politicians. (In fact, the words from her paper title all come from words whose use was attacked by conservative groups.)
Kempner studied 162 researchers who in 2003 either had their research questioned by lawmakers who tried (and almost succeeded in the House of Representatives) to have their projects blocked for support from the NIH or whose work appeared on what became known as “the hit list” of projects for which the Traditional Values Coalition tried to generate opposition. The research projects — all of which had been approved through the peer review process at the NIH — involved such topics as prostitution, gay sex, unsafe sexual acts, and drug use. Kempner interviewed some of the researchers and sent an e-mail survey to all of them.
While she is still analyzing the results, early findings suggest that the experience of being a target has led some of the scholars to rethink their work or careers. Generally, she found that scholars fell into three, roughly equal groups: those who were proud of their work and who viewed being a target as “a badge of honor,” those who were scared and nervous about the future of their work and careers, and those who had a mix of reactions.
For those who had fears and concerns, there was a real impact on their subsequent decisions, Kempner said. Nearly half said that they took steps to either lower their profile or to change the language in their projects to disguise those qualities that would attract criticism. As one scholar told Kempner of the change, “I do not study sex workers. I study women at risk.” About a quarter said that they had decided to seek funds from non-federal sources in the future, seeking to avoid controversy. This choice is significant, Kempner said, because the NIH is among the better sources of funds for large projects.
Smaller numbers reported more dramatic changes. Some said that they were just making different selections from among their potential projects. A researcher who had plans to study teenagers and anal sex or to study married heterosexual couples decided on the latter. One scholar left the United States. Another left academe. All in all, Kempner said that she saw real evidence of self-censorship in various forms.
Several in the audience said that the preliminary findings rang true to them, and noted that the impact may be greater on younger scholars, who have yet to win a first NIH grant, and who don’t want controversy. One researcher in the audience described the e-mail messages that fly among social scientists advising one another on words to avoid and how to best describe topics that may raise a red flag.