Science and Funding – The Syndrome

To bookend my last post, I present the article  from Sunday’s Washington Post. This is about a scientist in Texas who could get up to $75 million dollars to continue his investigations into a cause for what is know as the Gulf War Syndrome.

Fifteen years after the end of the 1991 war with Iraq, a Texas researcher is in line to get as much as $75 million in federal funding to press his studies of “Gulf War syndrome,” even though most other scientists long ago discounted his theories.

Epidemiologist Robert W. Haley has been trying for 10 years to prove that thousands of Persian Gulf War troops were poisoned by a combination of nerve gas, pesticides, insect repellents and a nerve-gas antidote. With the help of $16 million in past funding obtained by his backers in Congress and the Pentagon, Haley has argued that his “toxicity hypothesis” is the best explanation for the constellation of physical complaints that many veterans reported after returning from the Gulf.
As recently as September, a panel of the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine reached the same conclusion that half a dozen other expert groups had: Gulf War syndrome does not exist. After reviewing 850 studies — essentially all the scientific literature on the topic — the 13 scientists wrote that “the nature of the symptoms suffered by many Gulf War veterans does not point to an obvious diagnosis, etiology [cause], or standard treatment.”

This is a case where the result is far more important than the science. For many Gulf War veterans a single cause would release funding to support health related issues.

The problem is that there isn’t a single cause. There is no single syndrome. Despite what some veterans groups and congressmen might want people to believe, there is no single common denominator connecting the 100,000 persons claiming illness.

Does this mean that there are no health issues are related to serving during the Gulf War? No. Some of the people might have been exposed to health damaging substances during the build-up, the invasion (4 days) and the resulting clean up and re-deployment operations. Some might be suffering from health issues originating either before or after the time spent in the Gulf. Some of the people might have unresolved mental health issues leading to real physical disorders.
Again referring to the Post article

Outside Haley’s circle, most experts think the syndrome is rooted more in medicine, psychology and culture than in toxicology.

They have concluded that it is the product of a medley of factors, including the stress of the war and the fear that Saddam Hussein might use chemical or biological weapons. For some people — particularly reservists, in whom the symptoms are more common — it may be a physical expression of the disruption that deployment caused in their lives. Some of the physical complaints may simply be the ordinary ups and downs of people’s health, magnified by public and media attention. Gulf War syndrome may also be the military manifestation of something long seen in civilian medicine: symptoms whose cause is never found despite extensive testing and diagnostic studies.

But the real problem here is that many don’t want to accept a non-answer as an answer. To say, “Nice, but it isn’t as simple as that,” isn’t satisfactory. It isn’t what the veterans want to hear. It isn’t what the veteran’s organisations want to hear. And it isn’t what certain congresspersons what to hear. Thus, a scientist will be sought who gives the ‘right’ answers. Who finds the golden key unlocking the solution to all the issues once and for all; to find a key whether one exists or not.

Sharon Weinberger, where I found the above link, sees an even bigger issue. This is another example of a big science grant finding it’s way into the Texas prairie. Her book, Imaginary Weapons, does an excellent job of showing the administrative foolishness caused when bureaucrats feel the political need to protect pet projects. That coupled with the political power based in Texas make a difficult nut to crack. I recommend both her post and her book.

But remember, don’t always follow the science. Sometimes you need to follow the money. It’s symptomatic.

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