Activists threaten academic research funding

Abstract

Sanctions programs expand despite failure to increase vaccination Although Centers for Disease Control and Prevention records showed that more American children than ever before were vaccinated against preventable childhood diseases last year, many US states have implemented rules that reduce welfare benefits to parents who fail to keep good immunization records for their dependants, to ensure that those in lower socioeconomic groups have their children properly vaccinated. However, new data suggest that this program of welfare-based sanctions provides no substantial benefit to public health. Despite the finding, welfare officials say that the program is likely to continue—an outcome that the researchers say will stigmatize poor parents without addressing barriers to improving vaccination coverage. Scientists describe a randomized controlled trial in six Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) districts in Maryland (Arch. Pediatr. Adolesc. Med. 153, 1242; 1999), a state that implemented financial sanctions in 1992 to improve vaccination rates. AFDC recipients were randomly assigned to an experimental group that was penalized $25 monthly for failing to meet vaccination requirements, or a control group that was not penalized. Vaccination rates were disappointingly low for both groups, with less than 70% of children up-to-date for polio immunization and around 50% up-to-date for diptheria–pertussis–tetanus vaccination, with no significant difference between the control and experimental groups. “It’s nice to see that sometimes money doesn’t matter, but I’d have preferred that not to be so in this case,” says Catherine DeAngelis, editor-in-chief of the journal, in a note accompanying the paper. Although the results of the study have been shared with Maryland officials at multiple meetings, there are no plans to end the sanctions, which have now been implemented statewide. Rosemary Malone, policy chief for the Maryland Department of Human Resources, says that the burden of the policy on poor families is not too great, as “usually people cure the sanction within a couple of months by taking their kid to the doctor.” Despite the negative results, similar systems have now been adopted by at least seven other states, suggesting that the politically charged debate over welfare reform has remained unaffected by data. Alan Dove, New York Nebraska has become the first American university to have its funding threatened by pro-life campaigners and congressmen. Right-to-life groups have targeted University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) scientists for performing fetal cell research, and are pressuring state legislators to cut university funding unless these projects are discontinued. Scientists fear that this may become a growing trend: “I just want to let other stem cell researchers know that they should watch carefully what happens here and be concerned,” one UNMC scientist told Nature Medicine. Doug Kristensen, speaker of the Nebraska state legislature, called for discussion as to whether to cut funding to the University because of its involvement in fetal cell research when the state legislature convened days ago. The research involving fetal cells is conducted at the UNMC Center of Neurovirology and Neurodegenerative Diseases, where scientists use fetal tissue to obtain primary human neurons and microglia for Alzheimer disease and AIDS dementia studies. The center has thirtyfive scientists, of which fewer than five are involved in research projects using the tissue. “Word got out to Nebraska right-to-life groups that faculty here were performing research using material obtained from aborted fetuses, and they began to focus their attention on the university,” explains a UNMC faculty member involved in fetal cell research. “These people just Activists threaten academic research funding go after anyone who has anything to do with the procedure,” he warns. Nebraska right-to-life groups, who have been campaigning against UNMC and pro-choice Senator Kerry (D, Nebraska), are now being joined by national groups. Current NIH guidelines allow scientists to derive or utilize human pluripotent stem cells from fetal tissue for research, and UNMC fetal cell researchers emphasize that the projects are supported by NIH grants—they receive over $1 million in funding from the NIH—and are fully compliant with NIH criteria. “We haven’t done anything wrong. We applied for NIH funding and filled out all the paperwork just like anyone else,” says one of the scientists. “We have to continue our research—we can’t be intimidated by special interest groups, because then there would be no end to their control of science. Everything in science is controversial to someone.” In early December, university president Dennis Smith formed a bioethics advisory commission to govern the ethical conduct of biomedical research at Nebraska. Smith, the university faculty senate, and the publicly elected board of regents are now fully backing the research, including ‘pro-life’ regents, who claimed to support the studies, as there is no evidence that this research will promote abortions. As a result, Julie SchmitAlbin, executive director of Nebraska Right-to-Life, has vowed to defeat the board in upcoming elections. UNMC chancellor Harold Maurer published an editorial in the Omaha World Herald on 10 December 1999 in an attempt to explain to the public that “research aimed at curing human neurological diseases could not be done without these cells.” He states that “it is wrong to use legitimate research as a rallying point against the controversial issue of abortion.” The university is also attempting to gain more public support by developing a program to collect tissue from alternate sources, such as miscarriages and nonelective abortions. So far, however, UNMC researchers have been using material obtained from abortion clinics. “Cells from alternative sources have never been used before in our research, and I’m not sure whether or not we will be able to obtain enough material, but are looking into the possibility,” says one researcher. Kristine Novak, New York © 2000 Nature America Inc. • http://medicine.nature.com

DOI: 10.1038/72184

Cite this paper

@article{Novak2000ActivistsTA, title={Activists threaten academic research funding}, author={Kristine D. Novak}, journal={Nature Medicine}, year={2000}, volume={6}, pages={119-119} }