Enormous University Gift Raises Questions over Donor Influence

The donation to the University of California, Irvine, is slated to fund a new college focusing on what some critics call pseudoscience and quackery.

By Ashley P. Taylor | September 26, 2017

WIKIMEDIA, ALLYUNIONUpdate (September 29): The Los Angeles Times reported earlier this week that the website of UC Irvine Health has removed homeopathy from the description of services it offers. Both the Times and Ars Technica note that the university did not comment on the change.

Last week (September 18), the University of California, Irvine (UCI), announced that Susan and Henry Samueli had given $200 million to the university to fund a branch of the college focusing on “interdisciplinary integrative health.” The field incorporates unfounded alternative medicine practices, and critics accuse the university of letting big donors sway their scientific judgment.

According to a university release, “integrative health redefines the relationship between the practitioner and patient by focusing on the whole person and the whole community. It is informed by scientific evidence and makes use of all appropriate preventatives, therapeutic and lifestyle approaches, and healthcare professionals and disciplines to promote optimal health and wellness.”

As Inside Higher Ed reports, critics call “integrative health” a “rebranding” of a combination of ideas from mainstream science and alternative medicine practices, such as homeopathy, that lack supporting scientific evidence.

“If mainstream medicine, by its own standards, uses interventions which have been shown to be safe and effective, the only things left to integrate are treatments that have not been shown to be safe and effective,” Yale School of Medicine neurologist Steven Novella writes on the blog Science-Based Medicine, which he edits. “Some of these unproven treatments are also highly implausible, sometimes to the point that they are essentially magic potions and witchcraft,” he adds.

Henry Samueli, whose net worth is $3.8 billion according to Forbes, cofounded the semiconductor manufacturer, Broadcom, and the Samuelis own the Anaheim Ducks hockey team.

Indicative of their interest in alternative medicine, the couple founded the Susan Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine (which is being renamed the Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute) at UCI in 2001 and, that same year, founded an alternative medicine institute in Virginia, Inside Higher Ed reports. “I firmly believe that health and well-being is achieved when conventional medicine is supplemented with evidence-based, complementary and alternative medicine,” Susan Samueli said at the announcement of the gift, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Novella accuses the Samuelis of trying to influence medical teaching through their donation and the university of being susceptible to such influences. “Academia should have been a bright line beyond which quackery and fraud could never penetrate,” he writes. “Sadly, it turns out all it took was a combination of apathy and some well-greased palms.”

“This center at UC Irvine is not only upsetting because alternative medicine is being legitimized by a top rated academic institution,” microbiologist and science communicator Julianna LeMieux writes at the American Council on Science and Health. “This is also incredibly upsetting because an academic institution accepted money given with an agenda that is not backed by science.”

“I worry this legitimizes practices that aren’t valid,” University of Alberta health law professor Tim Caulfield, who is known for debunking celebrity health advice, tells STAT News.

UCI disputes claims of quackery. “We take patient safety as our highest calling and we will never deploy any approach—integrative or not—that put patients at risk,” Howard Federoff, vice chancellor for health affairs and CEO of the UCI health system, tells STAT. “Any non-proven or non-evidence based approach? We will not deploy it.”

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Avatar of: Curculio


Posts: 61

September 27, 2017

The use of  appropriate treatments and controls and objectively analyzing the results is the hallmark of the scientific method.  The subject of study is not critical. 

Avatar of: Salticidologist


Posts: 58

September 27, 2017

I'm sure that bureaucrats in the NIH and NSF also do a great deal to alter the focus of scientific research.  This is why, for example, all of those "integrative and environmental biology" departments have sprung up.  The quest for money takes far more energy than does the quest for science.

Avatar of: Chris Batich

Chris Batich

Posts: 1

September 27, 2017

There is a great need for this kind of academic activity since many alternative treatments, like IP-6 or i.v. vitamin C for cancer, are not patentable and not supported by commercial drug development operations.  Such methods are often supported by good pre-clinical data, but lack human clinical trials.  Where else can one see if they work?  Trials are expensive and require expertise such as regulatory clearance (even for over the counter items) and trained staff such as research coordinators to consent and monitor the study.  In addition, most of the integrative modalities "do no harm" and often should be the first treatment tried unless speed of treatment is required.  It is great to see this effort, and I look forward to more such center activity.

Avatar of: Allen Doyle

Allen Doyle

Posts: 5

Replied to a comment from Chris Batich made on September 27, 2017

September 27, 2017

Agreed.  I would hope this center would provide the rigor to study these methods and where demonstrable results begin and quackery ends. While there is plenty of fuzzy and magical thinking in "alternative medicine", to say that only evidence-based drugs and surgery "work" to bring health turns a blind eye to its shortcomings and the opportunties of low risk therapies.  Harvard researchers have endorsed harnessing the placebo effect, which often rivals evidence based therapies.  What would be a rigorous way to do that, for example?

The mission of this center is certainly plausible, and deserves attention and rigor, as well as skepticism and critique.  Keep it coming!

Avatar of: Manumit1


Posts: 3

September 27, 2017

Private donor influence in academia is nothing new. Donations have been used to influence curricula, hiring and promotions. The poster-child for such meddling is perhaps economics (and how this discipline has been manipulated to guide public policy). One hopes that government funding is less tainted, but we are now seeing the extent that a change in administration can have on climate science research funding and perhaps  even how evolutionary biology will be taught in some schools. The system isn't perfect, but it is the one we have to deal with. Improving the system will only come by means of scientists being more publicly vocal and doing a better job educating the public.

Avatar of: kdn


Posts: 3

September 28, 2017

Although some people ridicule these different therapies – there are several examples in the history of science where things referred to as ‘irrational’ or ‘implausible’ turned out to have very legitimate explanations. For example - we shouldn’t forget the incident where Ignaz Semmelweis (an obstetrician) was laughed at and put in a mental institution because he demonstrated that death rates during childbirth dropped when doctors washed their hands before examining patients. This was before people knew about germs – they thought that washing hands was some kind of a stupid ritual!  We need to remember that there is a lot that science does not understand right now - science may never understand certain things (such as how and why these therapies work). 

Avatar of: kdn


Posts: 3

September 28, 2017

Don’t forget that meta analyses have shown most main-stream medicines are merely placebos. See the article: Howick, Jeremy, et al. "Are treatments more effective than placebos? A systematic review and meta-analysis." PloS one8.5 (2013): e62599.

Avatar of: Ken Pimple

Ken Pimple

Posts: 44

September 29, 2017

I used Wikipedia to refresh my memory. The first paragraph:

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) is a United States government agency which investigates complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). It was initially created as the Office of Alternative Medicine(OAM), and renamed the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) before receiving its current name. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Center_for_Complementary_and_Integrative_Health

The Center was "established in 1991." As I remember, the move was highly detested by scientists - waste of money and such. I seem to remember that two or three studies in the early days were flops (positive results, but turned out to be illegimate), and others had legimate negative results. Among the practices that were scorned was acupuncture.

I don't know the current status of acupuncture in medical and science circles, but I do now that the first time I used acupuncture (and the only, so far) it got rid of pain that had lingered for about a year and several visits to a specialist. That is to say, it worked, after three or four weeks (one hour per week). 

I'm sure that there's a lot of humbug out there, but that which seems like humbug is sometimes effective.

Avatar of: kdn


Posts: 3

September 29, 2017

Came across the following interesting article published in Huffingtonpost: Title: "Shameful Media Response to the Samueli’s Visionary $200-Million Integrative Health Investment at UC Irvine" (you can find on google).  

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