Federal dollars fund research into gay men gone wild at circuit parties

Perhaps you caught the story that the National Institutes of Health sponsored a project to study the size of gay men’s packages. That might be the most egregious of the bizarre NIH funding examples turned up by a recent budget review conducted by the Traditional Values Coalition — but it’s by no means the only one.

TVC reports millions of dollars have gone to projects that can only be described as obvious. Since 2008, for example, $472,286 went to a project to study noise exposure on the New York City subway (yep, it’s noisy!). More than $360,000 contributed to a study to determine whether “text message intervention” helps smokers kick their addiction (yep, reminders not to smoke help!). But perhaps neither of those examples seems too extreme. How about $300,000 to study “behavioral intentions and associated outcomes over party-oriented vacations“?

That study intends to research the percentage of homosexual men who “engage in high risk behaviors at circuit parties but do not arrive intending to do so.” In other words, the project seeks to determine why gay men use drugs and have sex at night-into-day, professionally produced, highly publicized dance parties. Apparently, it costs $300,000 to arrive at the obvious answers of availability, situational pressure, lowered inhibitions, etc., etc., etc.

All applicants for NIH grants have to justify the “public health relevance” of their projects. In the case of this project, the answer is brutally honest. Principal investigator Rajeev Ramchand writes:

The goal of this project is two-fold: (1) to help facilitate Dr. Rajeev Ramchand’s entry into research on drug abuse and HIV/AIDS; and (2) to assess the role of behavioral intentions on drug-using and sexual behaviors that increase the risk of HIV infection. To accomplish these complementary objectives, Dr. Ramchand, a psychiatric epidemiologist by training and now an associate behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation, will collect anonymous data from gay and bisexual men attending a circuit party both before and after the event. This research will provide insight into the role of intentions on risky behaviors among a group of individuals at high risk for HIV infection, and the results can be used to identify optimal intervention strategies for this group at these potentially risky venues.

So, there you have it. First and foremost, the project will further Ramchand’s career. If only we could all have $300,000 from our neighbors for that purpose. The latter objective, while seemingly more noble, seems an equally odd choice for public funding. This is, after all, a behavioral science study. “Optimal intervention strategies for this group at these potentially risky venues” wouldn’t be necessary if the men involved didn’t freely choose to attend these “risky” parties or if they didn’t freely choose to engage in high risk behaviors.

That’s the primary objection Andrea Lafferty, president of Traditional Values Coalition, has to these projects, as well.

“We are not opposed to hard science,” she said in a statement. “However, our research offers example after example of widespread institutional waste at the NIH on behavioral research. While the White House and some in Congress raise the specter of cutting Social Security and Medicare, it is outrageous that the NIH continues to funnel huge amounts of taxpayer dollars for bizarre and politically correct ‘research’ to people who have made a career out of playing the federal grant game.”

Lafferty emphasized that point again in a phone interview. “This is not hard science,” she said. “This is behavioral.” Traditional Values Coalition aims to spotlight these stories — and more to come — to encourage the federal government to place a moratorium on new NIH grant awards until the grant process incorporates greater accountability measures, Lafferty said. As she explained it, now’s just not the time to waste a dime on any project that’s not truly relevant to the public health.