Researcher: Erick Janssen, Kinsey Institute, Indiana University
Topic: Mood, arousal, and sexual risk taking
What Critics Say: “It would be offensive to the majority of Hoosiers to think that in difficult budgetary times we’re spending money on the study of sexual arousal.” (Representative Mike Pence, Indianapolis Monthly)
Why It Matters: To stimulate different moods, Janssen showed his subjects clips from movies like Silence of the Lambs, then measured how they responded to erotic images. While most people lost their sexual appetites when depressed or anxious, 10 to 20 percent actually became more aroused. “That could be quite a dangerous mixture,” Janssen says. “It can affect people’s decision making in a way they later regret.” A deeper understanding of mood and arousal, Janssen hopes, will allow public-health experts to reach those who jeopardize their own lives while under stress.
Researcher: Rebecca Seligman, Emory University
Topic: Psychobiology and spirit-possession religion
What Critics Say: “Any adult taxpayer would have difficulty moving studies of . . . spirit mediums . . . to the head of a list of projects for federal funding, which includes serious problems such as cancer.” (Traditional Values Coalition letter)
Why It Matters: Seligman found that practitioners of candomblé, a religion in which mediums go into trances, share two characteristics with people with psychiatric disorders: stressful lives and an inability to regulate arousal. Somehow, they avoid mental illness. Seligman’s work suggests a more sophisticated model of psychological health: “The dynamic between people’s cultural context, experience, predisposition, and physiological constitutions determines the outcomes they will experience. You can’t just say, ‘This mental illness is organic’ and automatically treat it by medicating it.”
Researcher: Chris McQuiston, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Topic: Gender, migration, and HIV risks among Mexicans
What Critics Say: “Are we going to research finding a cure for juvenile diabetes or the sex lives of Mexican workers?” (Andrea Lafferty, USA Today)
Why It Matters: Studying immigrants living in North Carolina, McQuiston found myriad trends that could hasten the spread of HIV on both sides of the border. The separation of husbands and wives isolates male immigrants, driving them to drink more and hire prostitutes. When women do join their husbands, gender inequalities actually grow sharper in the United States than in Mexico, rendering many wives powerless to negotiate condom use. Effective anti-HIV programs need to address these issues. “Otherwise, it’s like wearing a sweater that’s one size fits all, and it really fits nobody,” McQuiston says.
Researcher: Jianguo Liu, Michigan State University
Topic: Human and environmental interaction on a panda reserve
What Critics Say: “Shipping out more than $1 million to study the socialization of giant pandas in a nature preserve in China may not be the best stewardship of taxpayer money.” (Representative Joseph Pitts of Pennsylvania)
Why It Matters: “Pandas had nothing to do with this study,” says Christine Bachrach of NIH’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The simplistic models used to forecast the environmental impact of population growth are often wrong. Using a Chinese panda reserve where humans also live, Liu is testing a more nuanced model. The reserve’s extended-family households have been breaking into smaller households over the past three decades. More homes, which in turn means more fuel-wood consumption. How does that affect forest resources?
Researcher: Timothy Guinnane, Yale University
Topic: Irish fertility at the turn of the 20th century
What Critics Say: “That doesn't pass the straight-face test.” (Andrea Lafferty, CNN)
Why It Matters: “Changes in fertility levels have a dramatic impact on society,” Bachrach says, affecting everything from couples’ happiness to the solvency of Social Security. One way to understand why these levels rise and fall is to look at historical trends. Ireland underwent a well-documented fertility transition in the early 20th century, making it a good study model.
Researcher: Tooru Nemoto, University of California at San Francisco
Topic: HIV risk reduction among Asian prostitutes
What Critics Say:Wouldn’t the money be better spent on a program to end [prostitution], finding these women the care they need and helping them find legitimate jobs?” (Representative Joseph Pitts)
Why It Matters: Legal or not, commercial sex plays a critical role in the spread of HIV. “To intervene, we must first understand how to prevent transmission by prostitutes of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and these people are hard to reach,” explains NIH director Elias Zerhouni. Nemoto’s study tests culture-specific strategies on Vietnamese and Thai immigrants, who have been largely ignored in the past.