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Universities. What are they for?

Universities in the English-speaking world seem to be moving away from the idea of what a university should be toward institutions which are driven by money and customer demand. The type of problem varies from place to place. The trend now in the UK for example is "noplatforming", where protests are held to prevent people who have controversial opinions speaking at events held on university campuses because exceptions have to be made to the principle of freedom of speech. In the US it seems to be the infantalising of students in order to protect them from challenging or potentially offensive material being presented in lectures or reading material. In one outstanding case a professor was disciplined because a student (in a tertiary level English class!) objected to the "racism" inherent in the word "niggardly". (Not understanding etymology is not confined to undergraduate students – I saw someone with a PhD in linguistics criticise the use of certain terms because they "denigrate" members of certain racial groups. The word "denigrate" descends from a Latin expression meaning "to call something black".)

Neither of these things is confined to just one country, and another thing which seems to be everywhere is a form of relativism applied to scientific matters. Universities must be places where ideas can be floated and challenged, but there should be limits. While I would hope that no real university would do research into the flat Earth theory or unicorn genetics, there are certainly places which harbour climate change deniers and, just as worrying, those who reject medical science.

This last is a particular worry for those who respect the Australian university system. I have two pieces of paper on my wall from Macquarie University where the first school of chiropractic was established outside dedicated chiropractic colleges. (Macquarie tried to close the school and sell it off recently, but it still seems to be operating.) In 2014 there was consternation when La Trobe University accepted a very large grant to investigate supplements from vitamin manufacturer Swisse (just that company, not any others). In 2015 Sydney University accepted a large sum from supplement manufacturer Blackmore's to endow a chair of "integrated medicine" (the label du jour for "alternative medicine") but promises have been made that the company will have no involvement in what is researched beyond writing cheques. Skeptics remain skeptical.

The latest institution to come under scrutiny is Western Sydney University (formerly the University of Western Sydney). WSU has long been the host for all sorts of research and teaching in the areas of woowoo, with teaching in areas like Traditional Chinese Medicine and the flaky fringes of nursing and midwifery. There is a centre within the university known as the National Institute of Complementary Medicine ("complementary" being another synonym for "alternative") which has just announced that a group called the Jacka Foundation of Natural Therapies is to endow a professorial chair. From the Jacka website: "Since its inception in 2010 the Jacka Foundation's major focus has been the awarding of grants to support research and development in areas relevant to the naturopathy profession". This does not inspire confidence in the quality of any subsequent research.

I should point out that I have no objection to private funding of university research. There is simply not enough money available through government bodies like the NH&MRC to pay for everything that needs to be done. Also, universities are ideally situated to do independent research, because that's where the researchers and lab workers are. The key word, however, is "independent". There are very good reasons to be suspicious of the published findings of in-house research by pharmaceutical companies simply because the research process is not transparent and the process is profit-driven. (Supporters of alternative medicine never tire of reminding us of the Vioxx scandal.) If the research is carried out independently with transparent funding and the sponsors have no control over what is published then the public should be able to accept the findings with more confidence.

I should also say that I accept that there are many things we don't know about the medical properties of plants and other organisms, and research into such areas is perfectly justified. There are at least three plants with possible (or known) pharmacological properties growing in the vacant block next to my house (St John's Wort, comfrey, hemlock), but I'm not about to start eating them without knowing what they really do and why they do it.

The difference between Big Pharma and the alternative industry is that the pharmaceutical industry does the research before the marketing but the "complementary" people go the other way – research seems to be done to confirm what is already claimed about things that are already being sold. And that difference is the real worry.

As for research into homeopathy – well I did mention flat Earth geography and unicorn biology.

This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the April 2016 edition of Australasian Science

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