The $350,000 questionnaire from NIH

Let's see: if you could get $350,000 from the government to develop a questionnaire, does that seem like a good deal? What if the questionnaire was designed mostly to ask people if their "qi" was balanced, or their "prana" was improving? Apparently, we don't have enough surveys of patients asking them these vital questions, but never fear: NIH's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has money to burn.

To be specific, NCCAM has given $354,341 to Cheryl Ritenbaugh at the University of Arizona (grant number R01-AT003314) to develop a questionnaire designed specifically to address "CAM" outcomes, "especially those therapies that have an energetic or spiritual component" which includes homeopathy, energy healing, and acupuncture. According to the grant's abstract, CAM therapies
"focus on vital force, qi, prana, or similar concepts. This contrasts with biomedicine, where the focus is on specific diseases, organs, symptoms, or mechanisms."
Let's see if I understand this statement. Biomedicine tries to understand and cure diseases. CAM, according to Dr. Ritenbaugh, focuses on magical fairy dust - oops, I mean vital force and qi. And alas, laments Ritenbaugh,
"CAM researchers have not had tools to measure outcomes that are based on CAM clients experiencing whole person outcomes or transformative experiences."
Clearly, we need a questionnaire designed to ask people about their qi.

To be fair, Ritenbaugh isn't merely going to develop a questionnaire. She also proposes
"to rigorously evaluate this tool in appropriate populations chosen for ethnic diversity and CAM experiences."
Phew, that's a relief. We have to be sure the questionnaire works.

NIH's website lists the published results reported for all of its grants, and so far this one has nothing to report, despite being in its third year. In another NIH institute, this would be an embarrassing failure. But in any other institute, a proposal asking for $350,000 to create a questionnaire about imaginary life forces would have no chance of being funded in the first place.

But wait, it gets better! Last year, NCCAM awarded Dr. Ritenbaugh an additional $120,000 for this project, part of the federal government's stimulus funding. So it's really a $470,000 questionnaire.

As a long-time reviewer on NIH review panels, I can only imagine what the NCCAM reviewers discuss. They must inhabit an alternate reality, where magical forces flow through and around the body, and magical, pseudoscientific treatments like acupuncture, healing touch, magnet therapy, and homeopathy somehow really work. The mind boggles.

I tried unsuccessfully to find Ritenbaugh's $470,000 questionnaire, even a piece of it. Perhaps when she finishes the project, she'll publish it. I think she owes it to the public - after all, we paid for it.

(An aside: the University of Arizona is one of NCCAM's biggest recipients of grant funds. UA's Iris Bell has received multiple NCCAM grants over the years, which I've written about before, including a ridiculous proposal to study how often you need to shake a homeopathic remedy while you're diluting it to nothing. Ritenbaugh is currently sharing a grant with Bell on a large training grant from NCCAM to Arizona, which will train "junior investigators preparing for a career in whole systems of CAM research." Good thing they're training more pseudoscientists; must keep the work going.)


  1. wonder how much this cutting edge research cost (fed and state (Pa) money involved)? Seth D. Baum, Jacob D. Haqq-Misra, & Shawn D. Domagal-Goldman, Would Contact with Extraterrestrials Benefit or Harm Humanity? A Scenario Analysis, Acta Astronautica, 2011, 68(11-12): 2114-2129.


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