Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Selling out Universities

How about a Pfizer Chair in Bioethics? With Pfizer's track record in Nigeria and elsewhere, the company has fallen over itself by way of linking into biomedical ethics. For better or worse, I do know that the company has begun funding biomedical ethics positions in the developing world. Anyway, I'm not after Pfizer today really. I came across a post on a German language science blog indicating that the Charite, one of the country's most prestigious hospitals and the teaching hospital of Humboldt University's (Berlin) medical school, has just appointed a Chair (ie an externally funded professor in this case) in 'alternative medicine'. The appointee will dedicate her work to the study of homeopathy (a quack form of medicine that essentially relies on an active substance being sufficiently diluted in water till nothing is left of it), acupuncture and Quigong, some Chinese quackery. Well, the thing is that we know already from study after study that homeopathy offers nothing much other than a placebo effect, yet the Humboldt University in its press release indicates what its Chair is meant to achieve. The appointment of the Chair is meant to diminish the skepticism of mainstream medicine toward homeopathy. There's a reason for this, much like with Pfizer's bioethics sponsorship in developing countries, the Chair is funded by a vested interest group, the Karl and Veronica Carstens Foundation. The Foundation is named after the late German President Karl Carstens, much like Prince Charles in the UK a fan of anything 'alternative' and 'complementary'. The Foundation's main objective is to mainstream homeopathy and other methods of 'natural healing'.

What is remarkable about all of this is that a leading German university has agreed to establish a Chair in Medical Quackery that is designed to integrate medical quackery into mainstream medicine, because it received external funding for that specific purpose. Well, this at least according to the well referenced science blog entry I mentioned earlier. The question, of course, is whether this act of intellectual prostitution is any worse then the regular selling out of universities to pharmaceutical companies, religious foundations and others.

2 comments:

  1. I agree with you - this is a weird case indeed. As I wrote in my blog, one has to wonder what would happen if Malboro were to sponsor a chair in alternative cancer research with the explicit goal of getting the medical mainstream to accept an alternative view to the established knowledge that smoking might not be so healthy after all.

    Same with your Pfizer example, although Novartis appears to be trying hard to catch up with their track record, paying homeless people in Poland 2 Euros to participate in a bird flu vaccination experiments, which ultimately resulted in the death of some of the "test subjects":

    http://www.scienceblogs.de/lob-der-krankheit/2008/07/zahlreiche-todesfalle-in-studie-mit-neuem-vogelgrippe-impfstoff.php

    This is exactly the reason why neither universites nor schools should be allowed to sell their independence and objectivity for research or other funding. The new Charité Chair for Alternative Medicine is just another example for why this rule should exist, since its existence will most likely be misused by a lot of quacks as a sales argument ("The Charité has just started several new Quigong research projects. See - so what we offer you is top notch scientific treatment...").

    FWIW, the GWUP (German Skeptic's Society) has also complained about the new chair for alternative medicine and the funding, although I doubt it will do much good:

    http://www.openpr.de/news/213538/GWUP-kritisiert-neue-Professur-fuer-quot-Komplementaermedizin-quot-an-der-Charit.html

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  2. Hi this is jock.This is exactly the reason why neither universites nor schools should be allowed to sell their independence and objectivity for research or other funding.
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    jockben
    MLS

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