Jon Cohen. Norton, $27.95 (384p) ISBN 0-393-05027-0

In 1984, overzealous scientists proclaimed they would develop an AIDS vaccine in a mere two years. Now, 16 years later, researchers are still battling the bureaucracy and each other to decide which potential vaccines should be tested and who should pay for the testing. Although Cohen, a veteran science writer (who presently writes for Talk magazine) originally intended to document one year of the vaccine search effort, he quickly realized that "one year doesn't mean anything to AIDS vaccine researchers." Because of a lack of leadership, organization, funding and urgency, it may take a year for some scientists just to raise enough funding to subsidize their work. As Cohen notes, many of the major pharmaceutical companies-frightened by the liabilities and low profit margins of vaccine research-have pulled out, leaving scientists to vie for limited government support. Unfortunately, the researchers controlling the federal purse strings, though distinguished, often harbor conventional views about how to approach vaccine research. Therefore, innovative approaches, such as engineering or deleting viral proteins and genes, are often disregarded as either too elaborate or too risky to warrant funding. The competition for grants promotes rivalry among scientists, a rivalry that Clinton hoped to quell when he announced his vision of a "Manhattan Project" for AIDS in 1992. Although the project never materialized, there has been a recent increase in federal funding for AIDS research that Cohen hopes will inspire the testing of promising vaccines. An insightful glimpse of a fractured but important process, this highly readable, thorough account may engage and spur AIDS activists and scientists to form a united front against a pervasive disease. 8 pages of photos not seen by PW. First serial to The Sciences; 5-city author tour. (Jan.)