Aberdeen decides against alternative medicine chair

A university has decided against a controversial proposal to establish a chair in a brand of alternative medicine that advocates mistletoe as a cure for cancer.

The chair in “integrative health care and management” at the University of Aberdeen would have been funded primarily by supporters of anthroposophy, a movement founded in the early 20th century by Austrian spiritualist Rudolf Steiner.

Edzard Ernst, professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, dismissed anthroposophical medical treatments, which are based on the supposed interplay between physiological and spiritual processes, as “pure quackery”.

He added that the nature of the funding meant anyone who took the proposed post would have “no chance” of being academically independent.

His views were widely supported online by science advocates after news of the proposal was reported by Times Higher Education on 26 April, following blog posts by freelance writer James Gray.

Earlier this week Aberdeen’s governance and nominations committee decided against establishing the chair.

A statement released by the university said: “Given the need for sustainability of funding for the longer term, the university could not satisfy its requirement for the highest standards of scientific rigour with the funding model proposed, in particular the aspirations of potential donors to establish a centre of complementary medicine.

“The committee further agreed that research to investigate the evidence base for the effectiveness or otherwise of complementary therapies in the treatment of disease was a legitimate academic endeavour, provided that it could be supported by sustainable and unrestricted academic research funding.”

However, the statement was criticised by David Colquhoun, former A.J. Clark chair of pharmacology at University College London and a prominent critic of alternative medicine.

In a letter to Aberdeen vice-chancellor Ian Diamond, Professor Colquhoun says he is delighted that the committee has made the “right decision”, but describes the wording of the statement as a “PR disaster”.

“It is almost incomprehensible and, rather than protecting your reputation, it invites laughter,” he writes.

“All you had to do was to say something like: ‘We have decided that a chair of anthroposophical medicine is not appropriate in a medical school and we shall therefore decline the offer of funding for the chair.’

“That would have been simple, it would (I imagine) be true and it would have brought credit on the university.”

paul.jump@tsleducation.com

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