Watching the Detectives

Call it the revenge of the nerds if you like, but while Homeland Security pumps Big Brother full of steroids, unlikely heroes in the form of MIT and Johns Hopkins University scientists are starting to fight back.

The tension between the government and the scientific community began when the Bush administration’s anti-abortion stance came into conflict with stem-cell research and the Patriot Act began clamping down on all types of biomedical research. Things really heated up last summer when Representative Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) added an amendment to the Labor, Health and Human Services appropriations bill that sought to eliminate National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding for research that didn’t cut mustard with him. Basically, Toomey was trying to get rid of government funding for research on anything drug- or sex-related — including a variety of AIDs studies and cash earmarked for the distribution of basic sex-education materials to college students.

As ridiculous as it seems, Toomey’s amendment came within two votes of passing. When it failed to pass, things took an even more Orwellian turn. On October 2, scientists working with NIH grant money started getting odd phone calls from their superiors. Apparently, the Traditional Values Coalition, a right-wing religious lobby, had assembled a hit list of more than 150 NIH scientists doing work it deemed unworthy of government funding. Included on that list were scientists studying the effectiveness of female condoms; suicide prevention in lesbian/gay communities; basic STD sex education for college students; and a wide variety of HIV/AIDS-related topics.

According to those opposed to these sorts of scare tactics, the Traditional Values Coalition leaked the list to Congress, which in turn leaked it to the NIH, which began calling researchers and scaring them with the possibility that their funding was about to go down the drain of the religious right.

As far as insiders like Howard Silver, the executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Association, a scientific-advocacy group, are concerned, “The NIH is a 28-billion-dollar agency. It presents a big target to conservatives in both Congress and the Bush administration.” Silver believes that the Traditional Values Coalition’s hit list is intended not just to cut funding for these grants, but to try to replace the entire, traditional peer-review process governmental scientific organizations like the NIH use for authorizing grant proposals. In its place, they’d rather have some kind of morality-based congressional oversight.

The NIH hit list was the last straw for Al Somner. In late October, Somner, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health (four grantees named on the hit list were Hopkins researchers), assembled a four-person committee to collect information about the list. While university officials will only say the committee is a place for researchers to turn should they get an unwelcome phone call or two, it is these same officials who leaked word of the anti-list committee to the press in hopes of ending open season on scientists. Just forming the committee was a bold move for Hopkins — normally a toe-the-line institution.

At the same time that Hopkins was starting to strike back, Los Angeles Congressman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) joined the fray. Concerned scientists had alerted Waxman to the hit list, and Waxman wasn’t amused. “Political interference at the National Institutes of Health is especially troubling,” says the congressman. “We have recently seen efforts to defund research that does not pass the ideological litmus tests of right-wing extremists. The scientific community has emphatically rejected these efforts.”

Waxman fired off a virulent letter to Tommy Thompson, our exceptionally conservative secretary of health and human services. In that letter, Waxman alleged that since much of the information found on the hit list was not easily obtainable by outsiders, perhaps the list began as an internal Health and Human Services document (a copy of that letter can be found on Waxman’s Web site). He further urged Thompson to “denounce this [kind of] scientific McCarthyism” and demanded a thorough investigation.

As of yet, one has not occurred, but with the NIH charter slated for review in early 2004, you can be sure that this isn’t the end of the battle; it’s merely another skirmish in an increasingly testy war.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s fabled Media Lab is manning another front in the fight against scientific censure, in this case against the monolithic Information Awareness program.

Following 9/11, the Bush administration introduced Total Information Awareness (it has since become Terrorism Information Awareness), a plan to monitor everyone in the United States for hints of suspicious behavior. Everything from public-library records to credit-card transactions would come under TIA scrutiny. Then, the renowned Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) — it was DARPA, not Al Gore, that invented, among other things, the Internet and the computer mouse — was given the task of building this database. Worse, John Poindexter, the Iran-Contra warrior who lied to Congress, was put in charge of the project (he resigned from the post when Congress had misgivings about fully funding the project).

MIT student Ryan McKinley happened to be fishing around for a master’s project about the time TIA was being cooked up. McKinley was studying under Chris Csikszentmihalyi in the Computing Culture Group, a division of MIT’s Media Lab. He was interested in the effects of technology on culture and becoming increasingly alarmed at the post-9/11 Bush administration’s use of technology for purposes of domestic spying.

“TIA was the ultimate Big Brother play,” says McKinley. “Every time any system like this has been built, no matter the reasons, it always ends up being used for abusive purposes.” But, he realized, he had access to the same technology the government did, and it would be possible to use it to watch the watchers instead. The result was the Government Information Awareness project (

Just like its TIA counterpart, GIA is a huge database where all sorts of information can be stored and searched for, um, patterns of suspicious behavior. The Web site now offers a thorough breakdown of every aspect of the U.S. government, with everything from biographical information on our secretary of labor to lists of campaign contributors for every Congress member available. It is one-stop shopping for information that previously has existed in dozens, if not hundreds, of other places. Still, that’s only the beginning.

GIA’s eventual goal is to extend the database so ordinary citizens can add information, possibly utilizing anonymous Napster-style file-swapping software to protect listers. “Right now, I’m trying to set it up so when someone adds information to the site, both the information and its source are subject to some kind of peer-review process,” says McKinley.

Meaning, if I were to enter the fact that I saw Dick Cheney out walking with the queen, doing the werewolves of London, last Tuesday, other users would be able to comment on my sighting. If someone else saw Cheney at the San Francisco office of Bechtel on the same day, that would pop up and cast doubts on the veracity of my report and on all my other postings. It’ll take time, but eventually McKinley hopes for a site where information is rated by other users (in the same way Netflix users can rate movies), with the end result being something similar to the community of book critics that has evolved on Amazon.

It’s a big goal. And to make it happen, McKinley needs to solve a few more problems. To this end, he’s currently touring the country, teaching workshops on GIA data entry in order to build up public awareness and participation (if you’re interested, he’ll be in L.A. in late January; contact him at If everything goes according to plan, the result won’t just be the lab geeks watching the watchers, it’ll be all of us — which is how things are supposed to work in a democracy.