Political Science
Tom Harkin has a long record of politicizing science funding.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa)


Harkin’s strong belief in alternative medicine may stem in part from his experience taking a massive dose of bee-pollen capsules, which he claims cured his allergies. “Something has to be done to investigate these things, because it sure worked for me,” he told a Senate panel in 1993. Harkin later claimed not to know that, at the time, the man who sold him the bee-pollen capsules was paying a $200,000 fine to the Federal Trade Commission for making false claims (e.g., that bee pollen would cure numerous ailments, and that it was consumed by “the risen Jesus Christ, when he came back to Earth”) about his product in infomercials. But Harkin’s efforts would soon lead to the creation of the Office of Alternative Medicine, predecessor to the NCCAM. Taken together, the two entities would fritter away billions of dollars of federal funds.

Harkin’s attitude toward the scientific community, however, is a study in contrasts when it comes to other issues. In the late 1990s, embryonic-stem-cell research was thrust onto the national stage, and there Harkin portrayed himself as a dogged defender of mainstream science against an ideological fringe.

Last year, the Witherspoon Council on Ethics and the Integrity of Science released its inaugural report, The Stem Cell Debates: Lessons for Science and Politics. It describes the ways in which scientific information and the proper relationship between science and politics were habitually abused during the stem-cell debates. It lists ten common misrepresentations in those debates, and Harkin is guilty of perpetuating most of them.

For example, he and his office repeatedly invoked the false statistic that 100 million Americans were suffering from diseases that could be treated or cured through methods derived from embryonic-stem-cell research, which, he has repeatedly asserted, misleadingly, a “vast majority” of Americans support.

As the Washington Post reported, Harkin suggested that “only embryonic stem cells have the capacity to cure diabetes” and dismissed the potential of adult stem cells. He waved off possible alternatives to embryonic stem cells in general as “nothing but theories,” falsely implying that embryonic-stem-cell research itself was already advanced beyond the theoretical stage.

Harkin’s statements at a 2005 Senate hearing further evinced his loose grasp on scientific and ethical issues. For example, in an exchange with William Hurlbut, Harkin began: “I guess, Dr. Hurlbut, since we are talking about this, you went to Stanford; they teach logic at Stanford, I am sure. If A equals B, and B equals C, A must equal C. So, let us start with that for logic.”

Shortly later, he fleshed out his argument:

What I am trying to get to is if (A) you do not find in vitro fertilization morally objectionable, private or public, whatever, by the very fact that you have [IVF], you are going to create surplus embryos. That is a fact on which we can all agree; therefore, that is (B). Therefore, (C), if you believe that in vitro fertilization is okay, and it is morally all right for couples to pursue, then you are (C) going to have excess embryos.

Harkin apparently took this as a simple logical proof that IVF is morally equivalent to embryonic-stem-cell research and offered no direct response to Hurlbut’s point that some countries allow IVF while prohibiting the creation of excess embryos.

Harkin’s use of rhetorical posturing to cover for scientifically and ethically uninformed reasoning typified his public statements on stem-cell research. In July 2006, when President Bush vetoed legislation to overturn the ban on federal funding for research that would destroy embryos, Harkin took to the Senate floor to call Bush a “moral ayatollah.” The following month, at an event put on by the Center for American Progress (CAP), Harkin repeated the charge and (around 8:00 in the video) called the Bush policy of funding only those embryonic-stem-cell lines that were derived before the policy’s implementation “totally arbitrary.” Either Harkin, who had then been in Congress for over three decades, was unfamiliar with the legislative principle of grandfathering, or he cynically chose to distort a policy he disagreed with rather than provide an argument against the actual reasoning for it.