By Peter H. Duesberg

The Scientist 8 July 1991

Scientific megaprojects costing taxpayers billions of dollars are, in some instances, the only means of reaching achievable goals. But if a megaproject becomes an undertaking that prejudicially focuses on a flawed theory promoted by a special-interest group, the project is counterproductive.

The multibillion-dollar wars on AIDS and cancer are a case in point. AIDS research is now based on the hypothesis that the disease is caused by human immunodeficiency virus (HIV); the war on cancer is based largely on the theory that cancer is caused by either activation of cellular oncogenes or the inactivation of antioncogenes. Both wars are waged by self-serving groups on behalf of hypotheses that neatly fit their limited expertise. Among the casualities are scientific minorities whose alternative hypotheses threaten the professional and commercial interests of these groups.

When a new theory deviates from that held by the majority, it is labeled "controversial" rather than "original" - and the "controversial" label is tantamount to a death sentence, manifested by non-invitations to meetings, non-citations in the literature, non-nominations for awards, and non-funding of research grants. Science journals participate in this process of excommunication, favoring papers that confirm the prevailing dogma.

As a result, the underlying hypotheses of the AIDS and cancer programs have been perpetuated long after they failed to produce clinical benefits. Meanwhile, the rise and fall of three  "dissenting" AIDS investigators illustrate how valuable research has been squelched:

* Luc Montagnier became a global leader in AIDS research when HIV, which he discovered, was accepted as the cause of AIDS by Robert Gallo in the United States and Robin Weiss in the United Kingdom. But when he concluded in 1990 that HIV would not be a sufficient cause of AIDS, he was thrown out of his own temple. No paper on his current AIDS hypothesis has yet appeared in the leading journals.

* Michigan State physiologist Robert Root-Bernstein, a MacArthur "genius" award recipient, has concluded that AIDS diseases have occured in the past and are the result of conventional clinical health risks, such as hemophilia, and of newly developed behavioral risks, including drug consumption and sexual promiscuity. On requesting support for his AIDS studies from NIH and NSF, he was advised that he was unqualified and should not bother to submit an application. Although his research has since been supported via industry collaboration, he is without federal grant support since June1.

* After discovering retroviral oncogenes and the common genetic map of all retroviruses in the 1970s and 1980s, I became the darling of the emerging hypotheses that cellular oncogenes also cause cancer and that human retroviruses without oncogenes also cause cancer and many other diseases. In view of this, I received an NIH Outstanding Investigator grant in 1985. But five years later, after criticizing the cellular oncogene and the virus-AIDS hypotheses, another NIH-selected committee terminated my grant. Although my grant did not propose even one experiment on HIV, the review panel included four HIV experts. My appeal, which pointed out the professional and commercial conflicts of interest of a number of the reviewers of my application, was disregarded by NIH.

What can be done to save investigator-initiated research grants from extinction by theoretically and commercially fixed megaprojects? Among other things, scientists should have to reveal all income derived from their expertise when publishing papers, when peer-reviewing grant applications - even when giving informal talks. *