Battle for Existence of OAM
© 1997 by Ralph W. Moss, Ph.D.
On October 7, 1997 the New York Times published an op-ed article entitled "Bee Pollen Bureaucracy." It was written by Leon Jaroff, author of "The New Genetics." It constitutes a full-fledged attack on the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), demanding that the office either "be abolished or that its $12.5 million annual budget be slashed."
This article is part of a campaign. It is very similar to a piece by Daniel Greenberg that was published in the Washington Post last August. Both coincide with a lot of maneuvering in Congress over the fate of the office. Defenders of alternative medicine, such as Rep. Peter De Fazio (D-OR), are trying to promote the office to become a full NIH Center, where it would have the power to disburse its own budget. Critics have countered by attempting to kill the office altogether.
Both Jaroff and Greenberg quote the same "eminent scientists," such as Paul Berg and D. Allan Bromley, and make the very same charges. Neither author is well-known for his abiding interest in alternative medicine. Many observers believe they are serving as mouthpieces for more powerful forces which feel threatened by the existence of the office, especially the top echelons of the NIH itself, which both resents and fears the existence of the OAM as a "source of embarrassment in Washington these days."
Jaroff's charges are familiar: the OAM "has given respectability and increased profit to purveyors of alternative practices and drugs" and to "highly dubious practices" which "more clearly resemble witchcraft than medicine." The consumers of such "drugs" spend $14 billion annually on alternative medicine, "much of it worthless and some of it even dangerous." In sum, the office provides a "cover" for "quackery," quoting Stanford Nobel laureate Paul Berg. No examples are given. In fact, there has been remarkably little such promotion, although some is inevitable.
AD HOMINEM ATTACKS
The second line of attack is ad hominem mudslinging against Senator Tom Harkin, the Democrat from Iowa who was largely responsible for the formation of the OAM. The Senator, says Jaroff, forced the NIH bureaucracy to do something they would not otherwise have done. Also, the initial advisory council (AMPAC) contained "some of Mr. Harkin's favorite alternative medicine gurus."
But the Senator's actions represented democracy at its best. Polls indicate that the public is intensely interested in alternative medicine. The current leadership of NIH is seriously out of step with the American people. They hate and fear what the public embraces. It is they who are out of line, they who must change. Harkin only reflected the needs and wishes of his constituents and of the broad public.In a democracy the public needs some way to have input into the scientific process that we pay for. Otherwise, we get self-perpetuating bureaucracies, looking out for their own interests. Such bureaucracies are real, unlike the "bee pollen bureaucracy" referred to in Jaroff's title. They need to be forcefully reminded of who pays the bills, and who the NIH was set up to serve. Senator Harkin was certainly right in using the legislative process to create the OAM. What is the alternative? The scientific elitism of an isolated agency.
Harkin is not alone, either. I myself have met with about a dozen Representatives who have expressed similar sentiments. It is also a serious distortion of the record to claim that NIH was entirely hostile to the existence of OAM in the formative years. Clearly, Mr. Jaroff did not talk to Jay Moskowitz, Ph.D., who was the acting NIH director in 1992, or to Stephen Groft, D. Pharm, who was OAM's dynamic acting director. (See the 1996 update to my book The Cancer Industry for details of that early period.)
The charge that Senator Harkin packed the advisory council with his personal "gurus" is ludicrous. At the time I was included among four such "gurus" or "Harkinites" as they were then called. Sad to say, I was never the Senator's "guru" although I would be proud to consider him my friend. But the question is moot, since I and two of the other alleged "Harkinites" are now off the council, and the fourth, the Hon. Berkley Bedell (D-IA), will be rotated off next year. Again, the reader can study the record presented in The Cancer Industry and elsewhere and conclude for him or herself whether our presence on the Council was beneficial or not.
Mr. Jaroff claims that the office has granted financing for ludicrous "investigations," including some of guided imagery, yoga, massage, homeopathy and therapeutic touch. As if it were a foregone conclusion about right-thinking people that such approaches are totally unworthy of serious investigation. Yet these treatments are favored by millions and the public has a right to know whether or not they are safe and effective.
A "particularly embarrassing" grant, says Jaroff, went to a University of Virginia professor to study the ability of strategically placed magnets to relieve pain. To Mr. Jaroff and his friends this idea may seem patently absurd. To me, it is another scientific idea worthy of investigation. Recently, I watched a PBS documentary on the development of magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI. It showed in great detail how the established authorities of the 1960s and 1970s insisted that magnets could never be used to image the human body.The parallels to today's battle over alternative medicine were moving and instructive.
Oddly, Jaroff concludes: "Putting such treatments to a scientifically rigorous test is not a bad idea." Really? Then why is he some adamantly against the office: "The problem," he says, "is that few if any investigations the office has financed in five years have validated or, more to point, invalidated any of these dubious nostrums or therapies." "The Federal Government," he concludes "has no business paying for bad science. Congress should cut its losses and shut down Tom Harkin's folly."
So, apparently, Mr. Jaroff would be pleased if the office had validated a bunch of alternative treatments! Here he has put his finger on a real sore point: the lack of "product" coming out of the office. This is complex. For the first few years of its short existence the office was directed by a man who had little knowledge of or interest in such examinations. His tumultuous resignation was followed by an interregnum period during which an acting director barely kept the office afloat. Wayne Jonas, M.D. came on just two years ago. He has done a magnificent job at reorganizing the office and putting it on a very sound footing. During that time he has been heavily "supervised" by the the director and associate director of NIH. Needless to say, he has been fighting under extremely difficult conditions.
But while he has created an extremely solid infrastructure for OAM, the "end products" have been neglected. Certain opportunities, in my opinion, have been missed. However, the initial budget was only $2 million and today's budget of $12 million is being assailed from both inside and outside the Administration. And believe me, even $12 million does not buy you very many good studies, studies of the kind that would convince a Leon Jaroff or a Paul Berg. The budget of the NIH is about 1,000 times this, and I can't say I am very impressed with their ability to find cures for cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer's or a host of other ailments.
IDEAS FROM OUTSIDE THE MAINSTREAM
The author's major beef is that OAM investigates treatments that mainstream scientists consider de facto absurd. But wasn't that the whole point of having an office like OAM? Haven't we had enough demonstrations that good ideas can originate from outside the U.S. medical-industrial complex? Even Jane Brody, health columnist of the New York Times, has written favorably about clinical ecology, the popular :arthritis cure," and St. John's wort. Yet these ideas come from the heroic struggles of people outside the medical establishment. Mr. Jaroff would cast such treatments back into the realm of "dubious nostrums." But what a loss if even one of less-toxic, less-expensive treatment were destroyed because of such closed-mindedness.
Fair and competent testing of alternatives must be done. Since many such treatments are are in the public domain they are intrinsically unacceptable to the pharmaceutical industry. Who else but the government can possible pay for such expensive studies? Yet the same spokespersons who are decrying the lack of "product" at OAM are also trying to gut the gut the allocations for such studies. You're simply damned if you do and damned if you don't.
Someone does not want the light of science to be directed at the most promising alternative treatments. And that 'someone' is not the alternative community. It is the faction in the top leadership of the medical-industrial complex. Success for natural approaches to cancer and other diseases will lead to some very pointed questioning in Congress and elsewhere. They are desperate to stop this process at any cost.
The proper conclusion of Mr. Jaroff's complaint is to vastly increase the funding and make the office more autonomous, by recreating it as a Center for Integrative Medicine, hopefully with Dr. Jonas at the head. Then (barring further obstructions) serious investigations could be carried out on the most promising alternative treatments for many incurable conditions.
Some of these methods in question may indeed be "dubious nostrums," as Jaroff and his friends allege. Others are probably of little value. Yet some few are likely to take their place in the forefront of Twenty-First Century medicine. All it takes is one new "penicillin" or one new "MRI" to make all this struggle and controversy worthwhile. At that point, the public with thank individuals like Sen. Harkin and Wayne Jonas who had the courage to persevere in the face of such bitter personal attacks.
--Ralph W. Moss, Ph.D.