US scientists lost a valuable opportunity to communicate and collaborate with researchers around the world when the Bush administration's decided to drastically limit its participation in the 2004 International AIDS Conference in Bangkok. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced only in March—well after many scientists had already arranged to attend the conference and present research—that it would limit the 2004 delegation at the July conference to 50 scientists, less than a quarter of the 236 who had attended the 2002 International AIDS Conference in Barcelona. As a result, 28 researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) alone had to cancel lectures and presentations on their research.
The amount HHS spent on supporting the conference was also sharply reduced, from $3.6 million in 2002 to $500,000 in 2004.¹ HHS justified its cutback as an act of fiscal discipline that would free up money for other HIV/AIDS activities. "This is the best way to spend the money of the taxpayer," said Bill Pierce, a spokesperson for HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, in a National Public Radio interview.²
Many scientists, however, were skeptical of the department's financial concerns. Dr. Joep Lange, president of the International AIDS Society, told NPR that the new HHS thrift "is strange in the light of the fact that there's a $15 billion pledge to fight HIV/AIDS. That's all games. They're really playing games."³
An internal HHS memo obtained by Science magazine suggested that the decision was instead a reaction to an episode of aggressive heckling by AIDS activists at the 2002 conference, in which Secretary Thompson's 15 minute speech was made inaudible. The memo, written by Jack Whitescarver, Director of the Office of AIDS Research, said the cutback "was as a result of the treatment the Secretary received in Barcelona and HHS opinion that this meeting is of questionable scientific value."4 Dr. Lange and other scientists suggested that another reason HHS grounded the CDC researchers was to protest the lack of faith-based approaches to HIV/AIDS prevention, such as abstinence, showcased at the conference.
In addition to the loss of scientific communication with other scientists via lectures and poster presentations, the reduced American presence also prompted the canceling of several workshops. Canceled workshops and symposia included those on rapid HIV testing, sustainable treatment of HIV/AIDS, NIH grant-writing counseling for Third World scientists and use of the Internet to deliver HIV-prevention messages.5 The Washington Post also reported that HHS officials tried unsuccessfully to cancel a $250,000 grant providing scholarships to Third World AIDS researchers to attend the conference.6
Politicians as well as scientists worried that the administration's ideological approach to the conference could ultimately undermine US scientists' ability to lead the international fight against HIV/AIDS. In a letter to Secretary Thompson, Representatives Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Louise Slaughter (D-NY) noted that "by grounding these experts, you are keeping them from learning from their peers across the world, and you are depriving the world of the scientific leadership of the United States."7
1. Brown, David. "U.S. Cuts Number of Delegates to World AIDS Meeting." Washington Post, July 9, 2004, accessed December 5, 2006.
2. Morning Edition. "White House Cuts Delegation for AIDS Conference." National Public Radio, June 23, 2004.
4. Couzin, Jennifer. "Edict Limits US Speakers at Bangkok Conference." Science, April 23, 2004.
7. Letter to Secretary of Health & Human Services Tommy Thompson from U.S. Representatives Waxman (D-CA) and Slaughter (D-NY), June 24, 2004.