Tom Harkin (D., Iowa) recently announced that he will not be seeking reelection to his Senate seat in 2014. In response, he received praise on Twitter for staunchly defending science over the years, and Jocelyn Kaiser at the journal Science bemoaned the loss of a “longtime champion” of the biomedical-research community. Harkin has been declared an official Champion for Neuroscience Research by the National Alliance on Mental Illness and has received many awards and accolades from medical organizations.
But the reality is that Harkin has a deeply troubling record on science. While he did indeed help to increase overall funding for medical research, he has a history of meddling in its allocation, insinuating his own pseudoscientific and half-reasoned beliefs into the process of deciding which research should be publicly funded. To make matters worse, he has a history of smearing anyone who disagrees with his views, accusing them of precisely what he himself is doing — placing uninformed, ideologically based beliefs over the normal science-funding process.
David Gorski, author of the blog Science-Based Medicine, details a rather jaw-dropping list of the many areas of pseudoscientific research for which Harkin has helped get funding. Harkin is largely responsible for, most notably, the creation and funding of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Founded in 1998, NCCAM has received $1.5 billion of taxpayer funds to date to study practices such as homeopathy, “energy healing,” and the use of magnets to relieve chronic pain — with, not surprisingly, unimpressive results.
Harkin also helped craft the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which effectively allows companies to sell herbal remedies as dietary supplements, putting the burden on the FDA to prove a product unsafe rather than on the manufacturer to prove it safe. Although arguably a sound move with respect to simple supplements, this law also allows untested products to be marketed as drugs as long as they are accompanied by fine-print disclaimers that (wink wink) they don’t actually claim to treat any disease. As Consumer Reports puts it, this leaves “consumers without the protections surrounding the manufacture and marketing of over-the-counter or prescription medications.” The most notable example of the law’s danger was the sale of the weight-loss pill ephedra, which was banned by the FDA in 2004 after it was found to have caused severe side effects and death in a number of cases.
In addition to promoting dubious research, Harkin has lent credence to the idea that vaccines cause autism, repeatedly asking at a 2009 Senate hearing (around 1:54:00 in the video) why there have been no studies that randomly assign some children to be vaccinated or not vaccinated so that the relative rates of autism can be compared. Harkin essentially ignored the response by Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, that the vaccine-autism link has been conclusively refuted by years of research and that such a study would be not only impractical but also unethical, as it would leave the control group unvaccinated against childhood diseases.
Typical of the rhetorical stance of those who continue to suggest a link between vaccines and autism, Harkin avoided any direct suggestion, instead hiding behind a guise of “just asking questions.” His questioning was praised by groups who tout the vaccine-autism link.
Overall, Harkin evinces a strong distrust of mainstream medicine, which he has referred to as “conventional allopathic medicine.” (“Allopathic” is a term used by practitioners of homeopathy and alternative medicine to refer pejoratively to mainstream medicine.) He argued that, as part of health-care reform, “it is time to end the discrimination against alternative health-care practices.” Tellingly, during the same panel, Harkin said that NCCAM had “fallen short” because, while it was founded “to investigate and validate alternative approaches,” it ended up invalidating most of the practices it studied.
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.
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.