Ernst decries firms' large dose of cash for pro-homeopathy website
Paul Jump on scientist's undiluted zeal for probing alternative 'cures' despite lack of Exeter successor
Edzard Ernst may have officially retired as professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, but his efforts to subject the field to scientific scrutiny - and the fierce acrimony those efforts provoke - show no sign of abating.
After 20 years of running battles with advocates of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) - including, most famously, Prince Charles - Professor Ernst now finds himself at the centre of a storm over homeopathic medicine manufacturers' financial support for a website that has criticised individuals who question the efficacy of CAM treatments.
The latest controversy began at the end of June with the publication of an article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, a newspaper in Professor Ernst's native Germany.
Under the headline "The dirty tricks of alternative medicine", the article detailed the funding by five homeopathic companies - to the tune of €43,000 (£34,000) a year - of CAM Media.Watch, a site run by journalist Claus Fritzsche.
The article said that if mainstream pharmaceutical companies had acted in such a way, there would have been a "huge scandal".
It highlighted criticism by Mr Fritzsche of a German magazine article supporting Professor Ernst's view that only about 5 per cent of CAM treatments are "solidly based on positive evidence".
Professor Ernst denied being the source of the Süddeutsche Zeitung story.
But what he viewed as the reluctance of one of the sponsoring firms, DHU (Deutsche Homöopathie-Union), to discuss his concerns prompted him to launch a media offensive of his own, in which he claimed that Mr Fritzsche had written several articles that depicted him as a poor scientist who had misrepresented his CAM qualifications.
He said he particularly objected to what he regarded as Mr Fritzsche's "horrible" misreporting of a written interview with him published in the newsletter of the German National Association of Homeopathic Physicians (Deutsche Zentralverein homoopathischer Ärzte).
But Mr Fritzsche told Times Higher Education that the Süddeutsche Zeitung report "manipulated [the truth] to discredit me".
He also claimed to have been misrepresented by Professor Ernst. In response to the claim that he had misreported the scientist's qualifications, he pointed to a journal article by Professor Ernst that stated that he was a "trained homeopath".
Professor Ernst holds no formal qualifications in homeopathy, although he did work for some time during his early career in a homeopathic hospital.
Mr Fritzsche claimed that the Exeter academic "permanently plays political games and puts up smokescreens to hide legitimate criticism".
Homeopathic firms cut funding to nil
In the wake of the controversy, DHU says it has withdrawn its support for CAM Media.Watch, stating that "the current discussions...make it very difficult for the blog to serve its primary purpose, which is a factual consideration of opinions and positions regarding complementary medicine". Another company, Weleda, also withdrew its support soon after the Süddeutsche Zeitung story was published.
Year-long hunt for replacement fails
Professor Ernst retains an office at Exeter and told THE that he would continue to work - not least because the chances of his being replaced were looking increasingly slim.
His chair was originally funded by the late construction magnate Sir Maurice Laing. Exeter pledged to provide core funding for a replacement, but after an unsuccessful year-long search for the right candidate, it has suspended its offer.
Professor Ernst said he was told that this was primarily due to financial uncertainly following the decision to separate Exeter's medical school from that of Plymouth University. Currently both are partners in the Peninsula Medical School.
He said it had been difficult to find candidates who were good scientists, interested in CAM and senior enough for a professorship.
But Professor Ernst added that he was certain such people existed and would be attracted to a position that was "fascinating, challenging methodologically and very much in the public limelight" if only it were advertised sufficiently widely.
A spokeswoman for Exeter said: "The post was advertised more than once, [but] we did not attract any appropriate applicants.
"Professor Ernst has told us that he is going to continue his work in the meantime, so we will look at complementary medicine again in six months."
She added: "We think CAM is an important subject, but it has to be financially sustainable like any other of our areas of research. The challenge has always been in finding the funding necessary to grow it in a way with which we are all satisfied."
But Professor Ernst said Exeter had been "more obstructive than constructive" towards him during the past decade, so a better solution might be for the "right sort of people" to raise enough money to fund a new chair in complementary medicine at a different university.
"I don't dare guess how likely it is to happen, but there is an increasing number of people who realise how unique my unit was in the sense that we were the only ones in the entire world who actually critically analysed these things rather than promoting CAM," he said.