Field of Science

Career transition - or destruction? - into complementary and alternative medicine

Funding at NIH is very tight this year, with a new budget that doesn't even keep up with inflation. Luckily, NCCAM (the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine) is still giving out grants aplenty. I've highlighted a few of NCCAM's awards in previous posts - and will do so again - but today I thought I'd look for myself to see what kinds of funding they're offering to eager young scientists.

Well, here's one: a "Complementary and Alternative Medicine Career Transition Award" (PAR-05-129), a grant to encourage scientists to change their focus and start a career in CAM. Think of how rewarding it will be! Scientists who win these prestigious grants will have four years of support as they learn how to confuse patients and obscure the truth, so that they can be paid (sometimes well paid!) for offering sham treatments. And NIH will pay your entire salary all the while - wonderful!

I should explain that "career awards" from NIH are actually a very important mechanism for funding new scientists and for funding scientists who are making a transition to a new field. These awards are used by all the major NIH institutes, so NCCAM is just using one of the standard types of awards, but with a CAM twist, of course. You see, it's hard to find a good position doing CAM research - as NCCAM explains it:
For postdoctoral trainees doing research in CAM, this transition has an added challenge because there are still relatively few CAM departments in research institutions where they might seek positions. Therefore, an important goal of this initiative is to improve the chances of outstanding postdoctoral scientists preparing to do CAM research to obtain positions in either CAM and more conventional departments in research institutions, thus benefiting the CAM research field as a whole.... Providing support to such trainees is crucial to CAM research to ensure a sufficient number of highly trained researchers in this relatively new research field.
This selection has a number of flawed assumptions in it: let's start at the end: why do we need to "ensure a sufficient number" of researchers in a field that doesn't have any solid science to back it up? Scientific research isn't about sustaining any field for its own sake - research that gets results will grow naturally, and research that fails will shrivel away, as it should. Happens all the time. In fact, unless a field has money specially earmarked for it, the peer review process makes it very difficult to obtain funds for poorly designed research or, worse, pseudoscience. This is why we need to eliminate NCCAM.

So what kinds of research does NCCAM want the eager young researcher to pursue? Well, they state that CAM research is in "four major domains: mind-body medicine, biologically based practices, manipulative and body-based practices, and energy medicine." Since all of these "domains" are various forms of quack medicine, many scientists probably don't know exactly what they are - after all, our "conventional" training doesn't cover quackery. (Medical schools, take note! Your curricula need to be expanded.) But NCCAM is ready with some definitions, such as this page for energy medicine, which explains that there are two types of energy fields:
1. Veritable, which can be measured
2. Putative, which have yet to be measured

Yes, you read that right! NIH is funding research into energy fields that cannot be measured! Or to use NCCAM's phrase, that "have defied measurement to date by reproducible methods." NCCAM includes in this category the following types of "energy": qi (Chinese), ki (Japanese), doshas (Ayurveda, see my blogpost on that), prana, etheric energy, fohat, orgone, odic force, mana, and homeopathic resonance.

I couldn't make up better nonsense even if I were trying. But other people believe this stuff, so shouldn't we respect it? No! Does it deserve our scorn and derision? Yes! Scientists are harsh critics even about legitimate science, and we certainly shouldn't go easy on garbage like this. Actually, part of me wonders if someone at NCCAM put together this site as a sort of cry for help - it's like they're asking for someone to point out its ridiculousness.

So, young Jedi scientist, fire up your computer and write a proposal to NCCAM to study the force, or qi, or odic force, or whatever. Real science is much harder - you have to conduct experiments with reproducible results! Why bother when you can just make stuff up instead?

And finally, a postscript to anyone who's read this far and is thinking of applying for one of these NCCAM grants: if you want to try something really subversive, propose to do your postdoc training in my lab. You can "apply rigorous research methods to investigate the efficacy and underlying mechanisms of CAM therapies," exactly as NCCAM requires. I'll work with you to debunk as many claims as we can. And if at the end of a year you determine that it's all bunk, at least some of NCCAM's money will have been well spent.

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