Update: Double standards in drug research

Since I posted last night, DrugMonkey, Dr. Free-Ride, and the Intersection have also checked in with their POVs on this issue. I particularly liked this comment from Dr. Free-Ride:

We get to foot the bill for the effects of other people's "moral failings" here as it is. Why, then, should it be so objectionable to consider spending some public money to figure out how to help people stop? Is it so important that people be punished for their moral failings that we're willing to sustain large-scale societal collateral damage just to enact that punishment?

DrugMonkey linked to a list of talking points from the Coalition to Protect Research, with a promise to return to them later for more discussion. Here's a bit from CPR's email call to action on this issue:

As expected, the scrutiny surrounding research funded by NIH via the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) continues. Much of the research cited by the critics of ARRA was funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). While NIH has been working to defend the breadth of its research portfolio and the rigor of its peer review processes, there is concern that the scientific community, patients and communities affected by substance use, addiction and alcohol disorders have remained silent in the wake of attacks on this research. . . Your help is needed to send that message to the administration and Congress underscoring the scientific community's support for NIH's peer review process and for NIDA- and NIAAA-supported research, in particular. Policymakers need to hear that the scientific community supports the broad public health mission of the NIH, the missions of NIDA and NIAAA, in addition to our support for the NIH-peer process.

More responses and resources at CPR's website.

More blog posts on this topic:

Adventures in Ethics and Science: Funding scientific research that people "don't approve of" (11/09)

Adventures in Ethics and Science: Is drug research on humans who are addicted to drugs ethical? (3/09)

DrugMonkey: More CongressCritter Meddling in the NIH Grant Process (09/09)

DrugMonkey: How would you like some posturing Congress Critter to de-fund your grant? (07/09)

SciCurious: Giving drugs to humans, the whys and wherefores (04/09)


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One of my main concerns about the trend to defund research into areas such as drug and alcohol research is that it will force more scientists who want to develop better treatments for these addictions to rely on funding from the tobacco and alcohol industries. Of course such industries have their own agenda's (primarily PR) which are quite unlikely to coincide with that of the scientists, and by accepting industry funding the scientists are putting themselves at greater risk of attack from animal rights extremists. People are less likely to rally in support of a scientist who appears to be receiving funding from ethically dubious sources.

Janet wrote a good post on this topic last year http://scienceblogs.com/ethicsandscience/2008/02/a_tangle_of_controvers…

So unless more charity funding becomes available the reality is that the amount of research in this important area will fall, since many scientists will not want to depend on tobacco and alcohol industry funding.

It is just that we the non-scientific community simply do not get the relationship between drug-addicted Thai transgendered prostitutes and the people you claim will be helped by this research.

It's a reasonable question, Kellie. The way shows like Fox News make it sound, the money is being spent to benefit the Thai prostitutes, and won't help anyone in the U.S. at all. But that's not what's going on. What's happening is that the study is designed to help us understand the spread of HIV in people in general, not just Thai prostitutes, and its relation to sexual activity and drugs and drug treatment. The primary purpose is to gather scientific information about HIV and drug use to help make new treatments for those diseases, not to treat all the HIV infected prostitutes in Thailand (although the ones who help with the study will get treatment, of course).

It might seem like common sense already tells you drugs and sex are linked, right? So why study it? Well, lots of people still don't believe that sex puts them at risk for HIV unless you're gay - even though the fastest growing way HIV is spreading in the US is through heterosexual sex. HIV is still a really big problem for the US, which is why Congress has told NIH to spend money on it in the first place! And since a higher percentage of people have HIV in Thailand than in the US, it makes it easier (and cheaper) to study how HIV spreads there. Thai prostitutes are what the scientists doing the study would call a "high risk population" for HIV, drug use, etc. (The reasons for doing the study in Thailand and the way the study works are much more detailed than I'm making it sound, but I'm trying just to step back and look at the big picture).

Maybe it's hard for some Americans to relate to the Thai prostitutes. So suppose instead, it was a study of cancer. You can see pretty easily how cancer specialists could learn about cancer in Thai prostitutes, and later apply what they learned to treating American women. We accept that cancer is a disease that strikes all human beings. Well, drug addiction is a disease than also strikes all people - and yes, smoking is drug addiction, and alcoholism is drug addiction. So it doesn't make sense to judge the Thai prostitutes, and say because we disapprove of their lifestyle, we can't learn anything from this study. Some people like to think we're nothing like them, but we're all human beings. Cancer, addiction, and HIV - none of them care if you're a Thai prostitute or an American housewife. Does that help?