The NICM’s undeclared conflicts of interest. Is there some ministerial interest in this? An update.

‘Competing interests: The authors declare that they have no competing interests

-‘Conflict of interest: There are no known conflicts of interest and no competing financial relationships exist.’

-‘Competing interests: The authors of this article do not have any financial and personal relationships with other people or organisations that could inappropriately influence their work.’

Three examples (of the many that do exist) where no Conflicts of Interests (COI) were declared. In my previous post, it was made clear that being involved as consultants, with a ‘for profit’ organisation who donated a substantial amount of money to the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM), is a clear COI. Something that has to be declared and yet this is intentionally not being done. You can read about it here.

This COI information was send to three journal editors where the NICM published some of their acupuncture papers. It was also send to the Director of the acupuncture clinics to ask for clarification regarding the NICM’s role and any (financial) benefits coming from this – past and present. And to find an answer to a relatively simple question; is there anyone working at Western Sydney University (WSU), who hosts the NICM, that understands the problem at hand (pseudoscience being promoted and protected at WSU and the subsequent detrimental impact on science and on society) and who are willing to do something about this? The only way to find out is to ask. Therefore, this COI information was also send to about 1500 employees of WSU to ask for their opinions.

So, what happened since?

Only one journal responded, first by telling me that the info has been passed on to their ‘production team’, and a second message; that this matter is being investigated and the outcome of the investigation will be passed on to me – and hopefully the NICM and WSU. No response has yet been received from the two other journals and as for the Director of the acupuncture clinics – no response from either the director, who was send this information twice, nor from the clinics general email address.

That leaves us with the employees of WSU – but first a bit of stats. The number of views that a particular post generates is logged, as well as the country where these views originates from. Another interesting aspect is when you send this large number of emails, approximately 10-20% will immediately bounce back with an automatic out of office reply. Using these two parameters it is possible to see if the emails have actually been send and how many people (you don’t know their identities) have actually read it – or at least clicked on the article link. So, you can make a rough estimate of the number of people at WSU who have accessed your article. So, of the roughly 1500 emails (of the 4000 that I have), about 300 unique visitors viewed, on average, two articles each. The remaining 2500 emails could not be send because the out of office responses suddenly and completely dried up and the number of views from Australia flattened out. And this can only mean one thing; my email address has been blocked. This has happened before but at least a couple of hundred WSU employees have seen this information. So, the question is; did anyone respond?

A grand total of five people responded whereas four of the responses was a simple ‘please remove me from this email list’. The remaining response contained useful and thoughtful comments on this particular issue. Thus, there is at least one person, of those who have accessed this information, that was prepared to give this issue some thought. Is there anyone else out there at WSU who has some thoughts on this matter?

Great, so one might argue that it is mainly silence as usual with not that many people appearing to care much about this or all other issues raised in this blog. But there is some good news. Some journalists made contact, granted not solely because of this COI issue, but rather because of the bigger issues facing Australia regarding complementary medicine. Hopefully this will lead to something happening. But then there is a potential humdinger. Normally one would not expect the minister of health to just send you a letter out of the blue and yet this happened. Again, granted I have send all ministers of health letters regarding the NICM’s modus operandi, but that was almost a year ago – at the time some replied but most did not. So, what is going on here? Why now?

Any politician will be (or should be) concerned if the government dished out more than $600 000 to conduct another controversial acupuncture study. This particular study was even called a ‘wacky waste of cash’ in the media when it was announced. If it now turns out that this study, and most other acupuncture studies conducted at the NICM, has serious COI issues, then this has the potential to make headlines (there is a lot of taxpayers’ money involved).

And if that happens, then it is usually the minister of health that will be grilled. Hence, a simple way of avoiding this would be to say that the matter is under investigation, or that they are still gathering more info or that the matter has been deferred to a different department who can, or should be able to, better deal with this issue – importantly, this needs to be done before it makes headlines. But, the good news is that they might actually be investigating this matter. Hopefully, the investigation will not be limited to this COI issue but the whole modus operandi of the NICM and WSU and the subsequent impact on science, scientific education and the impact on society. Only time will tell.

So, no concrete progress yet, but the ball is starting to role. Let’s see if anything happens in the next week or so.

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