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 Sciencebemoaned 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.