Perhaps you’ve heard of the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere,” Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young efforts to allocate $315 million in federal funds to connect one tiny island in his state with an even tinier island of only 50 people. Well, he’s now been joined by Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. She has allotted a massive $75 million from taxpayers into the Veteran’s Administration (VA) budget, with the dictate that every cent go to a Texas advocacy scientist and his institution to study a non-existent illness.
The alleged illness is Gulf War Syndrome (GWS), and the beneficiary of Hutchinson’s taxpayer-funded largess is University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center epidemiologist Dr. Robert Haley. Even if you accept that GWS is real and that Haley has something to tell us about it (indeed, he even claims to have discovered it), you should find Hutchinson’s action outrageous.
As Science magazine pointed out in its May 5 issue, other researchers are “troubled by such a funding provision.” That’s because it “not only avoids the traditional peer-review process, but it also marks the rare – and possibly first ever – VA funding of a program outside its research network, and to a researcher whose theory [of GWS causation] hasn’t won much scientific support.”
Haley didn’t have to submit a grant proposal, as previously has been the solid rule for funding from either the VA or the National Institutes of Health, he just appealed to his senator. (Or she came to him, whatever.) If this becomes precedent, legitimate federally-funded medical research will eventually screech to a halt.
Why bypass normal channels?
First, there’s the sticky problem of GWS itself. Depending on your source, as many as one in four U.S. Gulf War vets have it. But epidemiological studies comparing all of these 700,000 men and women to matched non-vet controls keep on finding, as did the last one (in 2005), that “Ten years after the Gulf War, the physical health of deployed and non-deployed veterans is similar.”
Indeed, looking at both U.S. and British Gulf vets, the latest study found death “from all illnesses was lower among Gulf War veterans in comparison to those of non-Gulf War veterans.
This doesn’t rule out the possibility that Gulf vets might still have excesses of certain illnesses. In fact, in a sop to GWS activists the VA makes presumptive illness” payments to Gulf vets based on early studies showing they have higher-than-expected rates of the neuromuscular disorder amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. But a study last year found that vets in general have a significantly higher rate of “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”
None of which bothers Haley, who isn’t a rebel without a cause because his cause is himself. Since 1994, originally using funds from Texan billionaire and conspiracy theorist H. Ross Perot Haley has produced one set of findings after another “proving” that GWS is real and is a neurological illness caused by exposure to low-dose toxins – with “low-dose” meaning unmeasurable. He’s latched onto a non-existent cause for an unreal illness.
Often his “studies” would be embarrassing by the standards of a typical high school science fair project. The hallmark of his work is that nobody else seems capable of reproducing his findings. That includes Haley. Replication may be good science; but the media are always clamoring for something new and Haley is a very good about giving it to them.
“[Haley’s] particular avenue of research being pursued is not one that has found much favor with the scientific community,” Simon Wessely director of the King’s Centre for Military Health Research at King's College London told Science delicately.
For example, in 1997 Haley and colleagues reported that compared with 20 non-Gulf vets, 23 allegedly ill Gulf vets “had significantly more neuropsychological evidence of brain dysfunction.” But Wessely (though he claims he believes GWS is real) and others later looked at more than twice as many ill Gulf vets, each with at least four neuromuscular problems, and found no such dysfunction.
An American team then looked at over 1,000 ill Gulf vets and, reporting in the journal Neurology last year, again didn’t find what Haley claimed to have found. Guess what team of researchers didn’t get $75 million in largesse from a U.S. senator?