The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has fired a salvo at its own AIDS research effort, branding it a "nontraditional defense program" that should be cut from the defense budget. The move has outraged the broader community because the U.S. Military HIV Research Program plays a unique role in AIDS vaccine development.
DOD officials decline to discuss the program's future on the record because it is still being debated within the Pentagon. But Science has obtained official memoranda that describe a proposal to transfer the program and $11 million--less than a third of its current $35 million budget--to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The proposal comes from DOD's bean counters, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller), as part of a sweeping review of defense spending launched by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The comptroller's office identified 10 "nontraditional" defense programs and in June solicited input throughout DOD on whether they should be cut. Particularly galling to military AIDS researchers is that they were lumped together with activities such as supporting Olympic athletes and "at-risk" youth.
Well-placed sources tell Science that several high-level DOD officials--including the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs--"nonconcurred" with the suggestion to cut the HIV research program. But, in what some insiders have perceived as a "slap in the face," the new Secretary of the Army, Thomas E. White, whose department runs the AIDS research program, supported the idea. "We believe the National Institute (sic) of Health ... can provide a better, integrated approach to HIV research," White wrote in a 29 June memo to the Under Secretary of Defense.
The military has a long tradition of medical research targeting specific diseases such as yellow fever, encephalitis, and malaria, and it has made vaccines against several of them. The AIDS program--which grew out of work begun in the early 1980s at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington, D.C.--mainly focuses on HIV vaccine research and development.
Outsiders who recently got wind of the proposal are not pleased. "I think it would be a terrible idea," says Donald Burke, the former head of the military's AIDS research program who now directs the Center for Immunization Research at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. "The DOD brings a different, niched approach to international AIDS vaccine development that neither the NIH nor the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] has picked up." In particular, the DOD program has a history of supporting targeted programs that put equal emphasis on basic research and development of a product.
Richard Hecklinger, the U.S. ambassador to Thailand--where the U.S. military is testing HIV vaccines--is even more disparaging. "For the U.S. to pull out now or put the project on hold while we transfer responsibility to a whole new set of players will be a major blow not only to our cooperation with Thailand, but to our high-priority effort to find an HIV vaccine for the developing world," Hecklinger wrote the Deputy Secretary of Defense last week.
A final decision is expected by the end of the month.