SEPTEMBER 12, 1994


Over the past decade, the U.S. government has thrown billions of dollars at AIDS research, with little benefit to patients. Blame for that failure lies mostly with the AIDS virus, which has outfoxed scientists time and again. But some critics charge that the government hasn't always spent the research dollars wisely.

Now the National Institutes of Health, the nation's biggest funder of AIDS research, has revamped its budget in a way that has even detractors cheering. Last week, the NIH announced a program to fund research on highly experimental treatments; by 1998, the program will pour $35 million into the pockets of scientists and their industry collaborators.

Some grant recipients will work on techniques for fine-tuning the immune system's response to AIDS; others will test whether injections with certain genes help patients fight off the virus. All the grant recipients face a highly unusual demand: They must start testing a new treatment in patients within two years of getting their money or lose the grant, says Nava Sarver, the NIH official who dreamed up the program.

This carrot-and-stick approach rewards innovative thinking--and thus may help prod some AIDS treatment studies out of their rut. The program will also help scientists overcome the difficulties of moving their discoveries from the lab to the clinic. Industry representatives and AIDS activists alike are happy. Notes AIDS activist Mark Harrington of the Treatment Action Group:

NUCLEAR FALLOUT. Now it's official: The typical American family no longer looks like the Ozzie-and-Harriet model.

A Census Bureau study based on 1991 data shows that only half of the country's 65.7 million children under age 18 live in a "traditional nuclear family.'' The rest grow up in a diverse array of arrangements, including one-parent homes, blended families that include stepparents, stepsiblings or half-siblings and extended families with grandparents or other relatives.

When demographers break out the numbers by race and ethnicity, large differences appear (chart, above).

There are three reasons for the rise in nontraditional families, says Census Bureau analyst Donald Hernandez: economic difficulties, soaring divorce rates and a steady increase in out-of-wedlock births.

Not only does financial hardship force families to move in with relatives or take in other adults, but it is a significant contributor to divorce.