Animal Rights

Alternative Medicine, Animals, and Money

| by Dr Ray Greek

David Ramey DVM has written, “The English government cracks down on alternative pet remedies” which is posted on Science-Based Medicine. Ramey:

In an effort to improve animal health and welfare, the Veterinary Medicines Directorate’s (VMD) has targeted “alternative” remedies, which, of course, pose both real and potential dangers to pets. The VMD is the body responsible for the authorization of veterinary medicinal products in the United Kingdom . . . Giving a pet an ineffective remedy invites direct harm, if a sick animal is treated with an ineffective remedy, as well as indirect harm, if an effective therapy is avoided in favor of the heavily advertised ineffective one.

Ramey then says:

Now one might legitimately ask, “Why don’t the US veterinary authorities and organizations take some action such as this?” Well, in my opinion, veterinary authorities are more interested in getting animals to be treated by veterinarians than they are in the particular remedies that are being used. So far, in the US, it’s been a triumph of economics over science. How long that stance holds up, particularly in light of the legitimate strides at curbing non-scientific practices in other countries, remains to be seen. (Emphasis added.)

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I encourage everyone to read his essay just as I encourage everyone to read the blogs at Science-Based Medicine. I want to take the opportunity his essay presents and emphasize two points.

1. You cannot take certain aspects of science and leave others. Science either works or it doesn’t and centuries of evidence strongly proclaim that science works. This does not mean that individual scientists (or scientists en masse) do not get it completely wrong from time to time or that science has never been used in ways that lead to suffering. These are both unfortunate facts. But the process known as science (as opposed to anecdotes or pseudoscience or superstition) is the best method humans have found for examining the material world. Over the long run it is self-correcting as well as antiauthoritarian. Not bad traits for any endeavour. (For more see Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk by Massimo Pigliucci and or The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan.)

Many people in social movements love to hate science because of harms that have been committed in the name of or as a result of science. I could discuss the differences between science and technology here but will instead simply allow that science can be and has been used for wicked purposes. That having been said, far too many people who are protesting against some of the effects of science throw the baby out with the bathwater. Per Ramey, just because you hate vivisection does automatically mean that alternative medicine in form of acupuncture or homeopathy works. Giving your dog acupuncture because you hate science is not the mature or intelligent thing to do. If you want to learn more about “alternative” remedies I strongly recommend the Science-Based Medicine website. Yes, at least one of the bloggers there is a vivisectionist and has come out against what I say about using animals as predictive models. So what? That does not mean that everything on the site is bad or even that everything he says is wrong. The website and essays found there are, for the most part, excellent.

2. It always gets back to the money. Ramey “. . . veterinary authorities are more interested in getting animals to be treated by veterinarians than they are in the particular remedies . . .” The veterinary authorities (and physician authorities, lest I be accused of ignoring the beam that is in my own eye) are just like any other special interest group. They want more business (read more money) for the people they represent. I am all for free speech (even in the arena that involves lobbyists and advertising/marketing agencies), but society should not allow itself to be fooled into thinking that such special interest groups are looking out for society at large. If they were, we would call them general interest groups!

In light of the fact that this is true for veterinarians and physicians, it should not come as a shock that it is equally true for scientists. Believe it or not, some scientists have more interest in paying their mortgage than in switching their research practices to more productive areas. (See my blog Snelson’s Ideological Immune System for more.)

From FAQs About the Use of Animals in Science: A handbook for the scientifically perplexed:

For decades, research grants from the government have been more about whom you know and less about what you know or what you are doing. One Congressman stated at a hearing in 1988 that the granting system is: “ . . . an old boy’s system where program managers rely on trusted friends in the academic community to review their proposals. These friends recommend their friends as reviewers . . . It is an incestuous ‘buddy system 1.’” At a similar hearing in 1989 another stated: “It appears that the [medical establishment] system has changed from one of NIH giving grants for scientific research to one of scientific research being done solely to get NIH grants 2.” Though regrettable, this is an understandable state of affairs given that academic careers, for example, often hinge on the ability to bring in grant money.

(This trend of academic corruption is continuing in the form of otherwise respected institutions embracing complimentary and alternative medicine solely for profit. See my blog CAM and Animal-Based Research for more.)

Meyers wrote the following in 2007:

About 90 percent of NIH-funded research is carried out not by the NIH itself on its Bethesda campus but by other (mostly academic medical) organizations throughout the country. The NIH gets more than 43,000 applications a year. Through several stages of review, panels of experts in different fields evaluate the applications and choose which deserve to be funded. About 22 percent are approved for a period of three to five years. The typical grant recipient works as a university and does not draw a salary but is dependent on NIH funding for his or her livelihood. After the three- to five-year grant expires, the researcher has to renew the funding. The pressure is typically even greater the second time around, as the university has gotten used to "absorbing" up to 50 percent of the grant money to use for "overhead," and by now the scientist has a staff of paid postdocs and graduate students who depend on the funding, not to mention the fact that the continuation of the scientist's faculty position is at stake. 3

As I have said before, do not discount the amount of money involved in animal-based research in universities. The overhead charge for universities housing animals is greater than 50% of the grant itself and 80-120% is not unheard of. This means that if a researcher receives a grant from NIH and needs $1 million for the grant itself, the university will receive an additional $500,00 to $1.2 million in overhead charges. Thus the grant will total $1.5-$2.2 million. This is a real boon anytime but especially in these times when universities are really feeling the financial pinch. (For more on money and animal-based research see my blogs Animal Research: Money Talks and Money in Animal-Based Research and Animal Models in Light of Evolution.)

Anyone who purports to believe that money is not a major factor in how physicians, veterinarians, scientists or any group of people act is either naïve or lying. In summary, science works, but (to grossly misquote Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park) human nature always finds a way.

References

1.  US Congress. Scientific Fraud and Misconduct and the Federal Response., Vol. 100th congress (ed. Committee on Government Operations Subcommittee on Human Resources and Intergovernmental Relations) (US Congress, Washington DC, 1988).

2.  US Congress. US Congressional Hearings on Scientific Fraud and Misconduct.  (April 12, 1989).

3.   Meyers, M.A. Happy Accidents, (Arcade Publishing, 2007).