April 17, 2011
The European Commission has just launched a public consultation on the Green Paper for the next round of funding for research and innovation after 2013. (In the current programme, 2007-2013, the EU is spending some €143bn in this area.) Health and aging is seen as one of the focal points of the next programme.
Advocates of complementary medicine held a meeting in the European parliament recently, hosted by Marian Harkin MEP, and called for more EU investment in research in homeopathy and anthroposophic medicine.
I’m not a fan of complementary (and alternative) therapies generally although I’m open to any specific treatment that is supported by good science. I do see three difficulties, though, about the idea of spending taxpayers’ money on research in this area.
First there has already been a lot of research, founded on good science, in this area. The overall results have not been encouraging, to put it mildly, to homeopathy and other forms of complementary or alternative medicine. It’s not hard to find this research on the web, and in peer reviewed journals, but let me just cite one paper here – an article in The Lancet by Dr Ben Goldacre. One advantage of this article is that it was heavily criticised by advocates of homeopathy to whom the author responded in his Bad Science blog and elsewhere, so it is possible for those interested to follow the debate and form a view of the competing arguments. I’m on the side of Dr Goldacre. (As it happens, I had not previously read or thought much about homeopathy; I’ve read a bit more since, both from advocates and critics.)
There is also a good article here on homeopathy from Prescrire International.
The second difficulty in funding (further) research in complementary medicine is that many (not all) advocates explicitly decry “traditional” or “old-fashioned” science as a measure of the effects of their therapies – which raises the question of what kind of science the EU should fund, should it decide to invest in research in complementary medicine. What precise hypotheses should be tested, and how?
The third difficulty I see is that complementary and alternative medicine is not based on a single defined set of theories or hypotheses that can easily be tested in some general sense. Homeopathy seems to have a more agreed set of underlying principles than many other therapies but even here it is hard to tie down a sufficiently explicit hypothesis that can be tested scientifically – apart of course from randomised double blind controlled tests of outcomes as compared to placebo (not an easy thing to do). Anthroposophic medicine seems to suffer even more from the same problem, so far as I can see.
I do see one danger in the new research programme in relation to health – that it may be overly influenced by the concerns of the pharmaceutical industry, as the current programme is.
I hope therefore that many independent and critical voices, from the independent drug bulletins, consumer groups and others, will respond to the Commission’s public consultation (before 20th May) on the proposed new programme. ENDAuthor : Jim Murray