TCS Daily

The Sorry CSAP Flap: It's Worse Than It Looks

By Sally Satel - December 7, 2001 12:00 AM

On November 1st, Christina Hoff Sommers, a noted feminist scholar, was invited to speak at a conference hosted by the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP), part of the Department of Health and Human Services. The topic: should CSAP undertake "Boy Talk" - a program intended to prevent development of social pathologies (drug abuse, crime, and so on) in young men. It would be patterned after an existing program called "Girl Power!."

For years, Sommers has been a thoughtful and vocal critic of Girl Power!, deeming it ineffective. "There is no good evidence," she says, "that gender-specific drug and alcohol programs are better than gender-neutral programs."

An hour or so into the Boy Talk conference, things got ugly. The audience - largely populated by agency staff and invited consultants, CSAP grantees - was hostile to Sommers` insistence that data be used to inform the creation of a new program. It all boiled over when one of the invited grantees yelled "Shut the f**k up, bitch." Derisive audience laughter followed. Not a word of admonition was spoken to the abusive "guest," not a murmur of apology offered to Sommers.

The lurid unprofessionalism at CSAP is well chronicled by Stanley Kurtz of National Review Online. His piece sparked a brush fire of outrage among academics and observers that should result in the termination of some bureaucrats at CSAP. But more than a handful of dismissals are in order: the entire agency should be eliminated. Indeed, the unconscionable treatment of Sommers was merely a symptom of a deeper malaise that infects CSAP.

"Scientifically Illiterate"

But first some history of the agency. The CSAP was created in 1992 with the establishment of the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration. CSAP distributes prevention block grants to states ($230 million in 2001) and awards contracts and grants ($174 million in 2001). Total budget for 2001 was $484 million.

CSAP is one of three agencies within that administration; the two others are the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment and the Center for Mental Health Services, a main function of each being block grant administration, for substance abuse and mental health treatment, respectively.

Among my academic colleagues, CSAP has a very weak reputation. "CSAP likes to tout itself as science-based," said a former grant recipient, "but there is no science. They really are laughable."

With so much of its money spent investigating techniques to prevent drug use, one would think CSAP placed a strong emphasis on research design, data collection and interpretation. Think again. I was told by researchers that CSAP`s projects are often so poorly executed that little useable data are generated. Many of the staff who oversee these projects are "scientifically illiterate," as one put it.

None of my interviews, alas, are on the record because the researchers are understandably fearful of biting a hand that might feed them grant money in the future. "It`s an agency I steer away from because their reputation is so poor," says a well-established prevention researcher at a major university. He gave me one example of waste: he participated in a CSAP-sponsored committee that was writing a report on prevention of youth smoking. He wrote his chapter, his colleagues wrote theirs, thousands of dollars were spent on convening the group and hundreds of hours poured into research and writing... and then nothing. "The report just vanished," he says. "It was never published."

Another refused to put his government project officer (CSAP employee responsible for overseeing contract) on a paper written for a peer-reviewed journal. "She made no substantial intellectual contribution and so she deserved no attribution," he said. As punishment, she saw to it that his company lost a several million dollar contract and the offending officer was never reprimanded.

My own encounter with CSAP`s third-rate research enterprise involved a $1million 5-year grant to the West Dallas Community Centers for a project called "Rites of Passage Primary Prevention Program." I saw the project described in a CSAP publication called "An African-Centered Model of Prevention for African-American Youth." In the publication the Rites project was described as a self-esteem building effort for young black men. This was necessary, according to the West Dallas project director, because "scientific colonialism, the institution of racism" have defeated young men to the point where they turned to drugs.

Part of the esteem enhancing curriculum West Dallas employed was nothing short of revisionist history. "The young [in the Rites of Passage Program] have studied Africa as the origin of architecture, mathematics, libraries and maritime travel," writes the West Dallas researcher.

What did the results look like? I went to CSAP`s headquarters in Rockville MD, was treated very courteously and given the grant application and the evaluation report. The latter read like a high school science project. Efforts to determine whether students` attitudes or self-esteem had changed during the project duration were foiled. "Unfortunately, many students did not have either a pretest, a post-test or lacked both. Thus, change could not be measured," said the West Dallas evaluator. When data from another part of the project were in fact collected, it was hard to track change over time because, as the report notes, "the past evaluator was no longer on board and took all the documentation with her. This made it impossible to use past collected information and measures." In other words, no results and a waste of taxpayer funds.

A final word about the CSAP publication. It contained a striking chapter called "Issues of Biological Vulnerability in Alcohol and Drug Abuse in the African American Community." In it the author explained that black people`s biological predilection for cocaine addiction was based on changes ("destabilization") of the melanin molecule by cocaine. That such science fiction would appear in a government-sponsored document from the nation`s point agency on drug abuse prevention is astounding.

The umbrella agency within with CSAP resides, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration just got a new director named Charles G. Curie. He is the former deputy secretary of Pennsylvania`s Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services who has spoken of the importance of accountability. He thus stands in marked contrast to his predecessor, Nelba Chavez, an avid promoter of multiculturalism with an impressive tolerance for shabby scholarship. Within the next few months Curie should be rethinking the organization of SAMSHA in general and CSAP in particular. The latter could easily be merged with its sister, the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment; various branches of the agency could be moved under other existing offices; key personnel replaced; feckless programs like Girl Power! x`ed out and so on. Oversight hearings by the authorizing committees of SAMHSA are way overdue.

The treatment of Christina Hoff Sommers was a sickening episode, but much good can come out of the publicity it is generating. Now that a handful of dishonorable bureaucrats have put their agency in the spotlight, CSAP should get the unflinching scrutiny it has long deserved.

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