Monday, February 27, 2006

HHS to NIH: Limited Funding for Participation in International AIDS Conference

The NIH had hoped to send 77 of its staffers to the upcoming International AIDS Conference to be held in Toronto. However, if the Department of Health and Human Services has its way, only 25 will be permitted to attend. The Bush Administration is again endorsing limits on the number of federal employees that may attend international conferences. (While these limits were defined by Congress, they have been waved in the past).

If we accept that the open exchange of scientific hypotheses, theories, and findings is integral for progress, and if we agree that the global AIDS pandemic is a topic of scientific inquiry for which progress ought to be made, then this policy does more harm than good. In an age when science is becoming more industry-driven (and therefore less publicly accessible and less objective), we ought to be concerned with strengthening our government-endorsed research programs. Limiting the NIH to one third of the positions it requires will simply hinder opportunities for progress for US and foreign researchers. Is placing a quota on idea exchange really the best way to save money?

The only way around the policy seems to be a move to hold an international AIDS conference on domestic soil. However, this has not been done since 1990 due to a 1993 immigration and naturalization policy that severely restricts the ability for individuals living with HIV to legally enter the US.

The international community has boycotted the US in opposition to this policy, opposing it on ideological and practical grounds. On one hand, the policy clearly discriminates against individuals based upon their health status (with no rational justification for this discrimination). On the other hand, it places a technical hurdle in the way of AIDS conferences, where participants are sometimes HIV positive.

United States policy has therefore boxed us into a corner: we restrict the entry of individuals living with HIV onto our soil, effectively precluding the possibility of a US hosted International AIDS Conference. At the same time, we tell the NIH that they must slash their list of conference attendees to 1/3 their intended amount, simply because the conference is held on foreign soil.

Nowadays, Canada really does seem to be a world away.

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