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

Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa)


In all of these public comments, Harkin repeatedly characterized his opponents as either uninformed or driven by craven politics. For example, later at the CAP event (around 17:10), he asked of the voting public:

Whose side are you on? Are you on the side of science? Of ethical research? On the side of cures? On the side of the most promising research that we have seen in our lifetimes? Or are you going to side with the president that has closed his mind on this issue? Is uninformed on this issue? Has taken a strict ideological approach on this issue?

Yet Harkin himself habitually hyped the facts of embryonic-stem-cell research and distorted his opponents’ arguments so he could portray them as uninformed and ideologically motivated rather than respond to them directly. This conduct itself was deeply uninformed and — it is hard to conclude otherwise — politically motivated.

Harkin’s habit of characterizing his political opponents as opposed to scientific and intellectual progress has continued apace since the stem-cell debate. In 2011, the Iowa Board of Regents created the Harkin Institute of Public Policy at Iowa State University, intended to house Harkin’s papers and serve as a center for scholarly research on policy subjects of interest to him. But the Institute has faced questions about its donors, which include Harkin supporters, such as the nutrition company Herbalife, which was a top contributor to his Senate campaigns and benefited greatly from the passage of the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. And the Regents include Harkin’s own wife, who abstained from the vote but was reported to have exerted pressure to get the Institute approved.

Although one of the specific areas Harkin wanted the Institute to study was agriculture, Iowa State already has a dedicated ag-research center, so the university’s president decided to allow the existing center to maintain final control over ag-research projects. In response, Harkin preposterously described this move as an attack on “academic freedom.” Last week he announced that he would not be donating his papers. Harkin’s political allies on the Institute’s advisory board backed him, and Herbalife decided to pull funding. The Institute’s continued existence is now in question.

Yet, as the Ames Tribune details, Harkin’s charge that the policy is an attack on academic freedom seems to have been roundly rejected by members of the Iowa State faculty, one of whom noted that the setting of “boundaries for academic departments or research institutes” is “pretty normal.” Even Harkin’s own Democratic colleagues in the Iowa senate publicly rejected the charge. Harkin seems to have been invoking concerns about academic freedom to fight a political dispute.

Many observers who have drawn attention to Harkin for funneling money to alternative medicine criticize him for believing in “quackery” or “voodoo.” But this is an unfair characterization of alternative medicine on the whole, which, although mostly malarkey, does in fact have some evidence to support claims for certain treatments such as acupuncture. For that matter, it’s fine for Harkin, as a private citizen, to have interest in and hope for untested medical techniques, some of which scientists might after all decide really do show promise.

The real trouble with Harkin begins not with his belief in fringe therapies but with his improper use of political power to funnel money toward them. Lawmakers do, of course, have the prerogative to establish funding priorities, deciding which questions and problems are most in the public interest to solve. But the desire of Harkin, or any other lawmaker, to see certain theories vindicated should not supersede the well-established peer-review process for determining which avenues of research hold the most scientific promise. The one place where lawmakers do have proper authority to interfere with that process is in setting certain ethical boundaries on publicly funded research. (Nearly everyone agrees on this general point, despite disagreement on just what the boundaries should be.)

Although Senator Harkin has indeed helped to increase overall federal funding for science, he managed to get the proper relationship between science and politics completely backwards — quizzically behaving as if Congress should help settle scientific questions but defer to scientists on ethical questions. The ultimate irony of Harkin’s career is that he repeatedly demonizes his opponents for placing their ideological priorities above the proper practice of science, when there are few specimens of this kind of political malpractice more egregious than Harkin himself.

— Ari N. Schulman is a senior editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society.