Tom Insel is director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) but he is better known to readers of this blog as the chair of the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee. If you read other autism blogs, he’s probably very well known to you, as he has been the target of a concerted attack from the vaccines-cause-autism groups for a few months now. They even got the publicist, David Kirby, to take their battle to the public in a CBS interview.
Let me take a moment to make a side point. The vaccines-cause-autism groups (SafeMinds, Generation Rescue, the National Autism Association, Talk About Curing Autism (TACA)…I’m probably missing one or two), are basically a single consortium as evidenced by their single blog and their shared membership. I don’t see the need to treat them as separate entities. I really don’t see that they should be given multiple representations on the IACC.
I’ve been watching the IACC pretty closely for some time. I’ve also been watching the vaccines-cause-autism consortium. I’ve been watching the consortium build pressure against Dr. Insel.
One thing I’ve noticed: this level of pressure directed at Dr. Insel wasn’t always the case. Less than a year ago, Dr. Insel was not their target.
Take a look at one of the classic pieces of IACC intimidation: a piece called “Grinkers Stinker“. This is dated January, 2008. It was timed to coincide with a 4-day workshop that was the kick-off for the Strategic Plan process.
“Grinker’s Stinker” was a piece about the Dr. Joyce Chung, the former IACC coordinator. She is the wife of Prof. Roy Richard Grinker, anthropologist and author of the book Unstrange Minds. Dr. Grinker has publicly stated that he accepts the scientific consensus that vaccines did not cause an epidemic of autism. Dr. Chung has made no public statements (at least that I can find), but the lack of actual information about her or her opinions didn’t stop a blog post decrying her position on the IACC. From the blog post:
Does Joyce Chung agree with her husband? Did they ask her this question before she took the job?
Oddly, the last comment to that blog piece, by Generation Rescue’s “DC Liason” Kelli Ann Davis, starts with the question, “Can I suggest that we try and put an end to all the mudslinging?”
History has proven that, no, the Age of Autism can’t put an end to the mudslinging. Unfortunate, that.
Take a look at the blog post. There is no mention of Dr. Insel. No one decrying his “lack of leadership”, no one claiming “collusion” or “malfeasance”. None of the mudslinging terms currently used against members of the IACC, especially Dr. Insel. In fact, the first mention of Dr. Insel is in the comment by Ms. Davis. In her comment Ms. Davis suggests that Dr. Insel will be watching out for conflicts of interest.
Times certainly have changed. The Age of Autism likes to demonize those it disagrees with, and Dr. Insel certainly has been a recent target.
Dr. Insel (a) had the IACC reconsider an initiative to call for a vaccine-autism study to be included in the Strategic Plan and (b) spoke before a congressional hearing about why vaccine/autism studies are not a high priority.
Not surprising to many of the readers here, I am sure, the vaccines-cause-autism consortium have a single issue (vaccines). As long as Dr. Insel’s position on vaccine/autism research, there was hope for the consortium and they left him alone. Once his current opinion formed and was public, he was public enemy number one. Yes, Dr. Paul Offit (vaccinologist and outspoken critic of the notion that vaccines cause autism) has been superseded.
Recently, Dan Olmsted (owner of the Age of Autism website) called for Dr. Insel to resign. Again, it boils down to the single issue: vaccines.
So, here we are. The vaccines-cause-autism consortium has declared war on Tom Insel for opposing their single-item agenda. If you think “war” is too strong a word, take it up with Mr. Olmsted. In referring to the recent incident where notes from an IACC member were made public:
…notes dropped on the floor (see the notes here) at the IACC, recovered by friendly forces and reported on our blog…
Yes, the Age of Autism people are “friendly forces”.
Here’s my perspective on Dr. Insel, for whatever it may be worth. He is the chair of the IACC. In my opinion, his role is to run the meetings and manage the staff. He should be getting good people in to serve on the IACC and the subcommittees and good people to consult on the topics that are discussed. Basically, his role is that of a facilitator–get good people together with the tools they need to do their job. He needs to be knowledgeable enough on the subject (autism) to do this.
You know what? Given the fact that his full time job is director of the NIMH, he’s actually done a pretty good job.
Is there room for improvement? Heck yeah. How about putting a greater emphasis on research into the needs of autistic adults? The majority of autistics are adults. And yet only 5% of the funding is being applied to this critical area.
But, of course, the squeaky wheels (the vaccines-cause-autism consortium in this case) get the grease. The squeaky wheels have been calling for research into environmental causes of autism. Tens of millions of dollars are being focused on this. Why are the squeaky wheels unhappy? Because the squeaky wheels didn’t really mean “environmental causes”. That was only a code word for vaccines.
This level of tension is not just sad. It is detrimental to the progress of the IACC. There are a lot of autistics, parents, professionals and organizations who are interested in working with the IACC. Why spend any more effort on the groups that have declared war?
(note, I made a number of changes in this piece shortly after publishing it)