Scholars are expressing concern about government and other third-party inquiries targeting researchers working in controversial fields. The alarm grew on Thursday with the disclosure that a special House committee investigation is seeking the names of researchers and graduate students working with fetal tissue -- including that obtained via abortions.
Given “the long and frightening record of intimidation and violence directed against anyone potentially implicated in the abortion controversy, the congressional request seems both inappropriate and dangerous,” Henry Reichman, chair of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, said via email. “Any legitimate concerns that have prompted this particular investigation may readily be addressed without disclosure of the names of individual researchers.”
The investigation, detailed in The New York Times, involves more than a dozen planned subpoenas to labs and businesses asking for the names of scientists, students and other personnel working with fetal tissue.
Such research, legal but controversial, has become especially charged since anti-abortion activists last year released tapes purporting to show representatives of Planned Parenthood discussing the sale of fetal body parts obtained through abortions. Such sales are illegal, but subsequent state-level investigations have found that Planned Parenthood does not engage in such sales within their borders. In January, a grand jury in Texas even voted to indict not Planned Parenthood but the activists who made the video, on felony charges related to using false IDs.
Those outcomes haven’t stalled an ongoing congressional inquiry, headed by Representative Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, however. Blackburn, who opposes most fetal tissue research for its ties to abortion, intends to subpoena researchers on behalf of the Republicans on the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives.
“We are going to review the business practices of these procurement organizations and do some investigating of how they have constructed a for-profit business model from selling baby body parts,” Blackburn told the Times.
Some of the universities that already have turned over documents as part of the investigation have blacked out names of individual researchers. Jacqueline Carr, a spokesperson for the University of California at San Diego, said names on her institution's responses, for example, were redacted "for the safety and security of the named individuals."
In November, a Colorado man killed three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic, reportedly saying “no more baby parts” after his arrest.
But Blackburn and her committee colleagues still want the names -- hence the subpoenas. They’ve been criticized by others in Congress for allegedly attempting to intimidate researchers out of this kind of work.
Some researchers say the inquiry already has had a chilling effect, in that medical studies have been canceled or delayed because fetal tissue is now harder to come by.
Larry Goldstein, scientific director of the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine in San Diego, for example, told the Blackburn’s committee at its first hearing earlier this month that a project to cure multiple sclerosis had been halted because it had “basically seen supply of fetal material dry up completely,” according to the Times.
The Association of American Medical Colleges earlier this month released a statement in support of fetal tissue research, saying, “As leading academic medical centers and scientific and medical societies who conduct and support life-saving research, we have grave concerns about legislative proposals to restrict the use of fetal tissue for research.” Any such restriction would have “serious downstream consequences,” the association wrote, including limiting “research on vaccines not yet developed, for treatments not yet discovered, for causes of diseases not yet understood.”
Blackburn denied that the inquiry was an attempt at intimidation, and investigators for the congressional committee say they’ve found evidence of possible profiteering and other potentially illegal relations between researchers seeking fetal tissue and abortion providers. At the March 2 hearing, Blackburn said Nazi medical research and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment presented similar ethical issues as fetal tissue research.
Scientists, meanwhile, say fetal tissue research is not linked in any way to the abortion rate, and that the tissues would otherwise be discarded.
Reichman, of the AAUP, said it was difficult “if not impossible to define a hard-and-fast rule governing when it might be appropriate to divulge the names of researchers,” and that the association has never sought to do so.
Because higher education should serve the public good, he continued, “the public should reasonably have the right to know what kinds of research activities are being conducted and by whom, especially in publicly funded institutions.” That said, however, “politically charged efforts to reveal the names of researchers working on controversial subjects may present a serious threat to academic freedom.”
It’s not just fetal tissue research that has prompted government or other interest groups’ inquiries into academic research. Michael Mann, a climate change researcher formerly on the faculty at the University of Virginia, faced open records requests for his emails from what was then called the American Tradition Institute and former state attorney general Ken Cuccinelli. The university backed Mann’s right to privacy and he eventually prevailed in a legal fight, but such cases have sparked the ire of fellow scientists who say that voluminous and/or personally invasive records requests and other kinds of inquiries distract researchers from their work and chill academic freedom.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, for example, published a 2015 report called “Freedom to Bully: How Laws Intended to Free Information Are Used to Harass Researchers.” Among other solutions, it called for universities to clarify their policies and procedures with regard to open records requests, ensure that employees understand them and plan for how they’ll respond to suspected harassment.
“There are many legitimate types of scrutiny over science and scientists,” Michael Halpern, program manager for the union’s Center for Science and Democracy, wrote in a blog post this week. “For example, scientists should make public data and methodology related to published papers so that other researchers can attempt to replicate the work. They should make public anything that creates an actual or perceived conflict of interest -- research funding, for example, or contributors to a scientist’s public testimony.”
But, Halpern continued, “it is wishful thinking to believe that scientific discourse will not suffer if each peer review comment or academic exchange is in the public eye. Therefore, we criticize [Freedom of Information Act] requests that are obvious fishing expeditions and commend those that are narrowly tailored, while bringing attention to the toll that the abuse of FOIA can have on individual researchers. It all comes down to what is in the public interest.”
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