by David Tuller, DrPH
Well, not in those words, of course. It was all very polite. But that was the message.
Here’s what happened. On Monday, I posted an open letter to the members of the board of the CFS/ME Research Collaborative. The letter involved the false accusation of libel that the CMRC’s deputy chair, Esther Crawley, disseminated against me at a conference of renal experts two weeks ago. Because the accusation involved a blog post I wrote for Virology Blog, the accusation of libel also extended to Dr. Racaniello, who hosts this site.
I sent a link to the open letter to Stephen Holgate, the CMRC’s chair, and other members of the collaborative’s board. Dr. Holgate is a public supporter of Dr. Crawley’s work—he appeared with her at a press conference organized by the Science Media Centre to promote her latest venture, FITNET-NHS, a trial of online cognitive behavior therapy for adolescents with ME/CFS. (I wrote about this flawed proposal in the purportedly libelous blog that Dr. Crawley displayed on screen during her infamous presentation to the British Renal Society. In that post, I criticized Dr. Holgate for supporting Dr. Crawley’s research, given that she has a tendency to conflate “chronic fatigue” and “chronic fatigue syndrome”).
I did not hear back after e-mailing the link to the open letter. However, Dr. Racaniello received a cryptic response from Dr. Holgate, apparently in error. It popped up in his in-box shortly after I sent my e-mail about the open letter to Dr. Holgate and other CMRC board members. After receiving my e-mail, Dr. Holgate sent the following message to the CMRC board members:
Friends, I hope you do not feel it necessary to respond to this.
I had cc’d Dr. Racaniello on my original message; I presume that’s why he received a copy of Dr. Holgate’s e-mail. I wrote to Dr. Holgate, asking if he sent the e-mail to Dr. Racaniello in error, or if it was an indirect way of letting us know the CMRC would remain silent. I soon heard back from Dr. Holgate. He explained that the questions I have raised “are not the business” of the collaborative, which after all is a “voluntary” group and has “no official standing.” He told me I needed to pursue any concerns through “other avenues.”
So that is the CMRC chair’s response to the news that his deputy chair falsely accused two other academics of libel at a professional gathering, at which she also appeared to be advising medical professionals on effective ways of avoiding their legal obligations under the freedom of information law. Dr. Holgate apparently feels this has nothing to do with the CMRC itself because it is just a “voluntary” group with “no official standing.” (What does that mean? “Official standing” with whom? The CMRC has enough “official standing” to organize conferences, issue statements, and have a board, which includes a deputy chair who makes false libel accusations and a chair who doesn’t think that’s a problem.)
Apart from her defamatory libel claim, Dr. Crawley also appears to think that the filing of freedom of information requests related to ME/CFS is tantamount to conducting a harassment campaign. And she continues to make this ridiculous argument, even though last year’s First-Tier tribunal decision on one such request dismissed this claim in harsh terms. With all due respect to Dr. Holgate’s assurance that Dr. Crawley’s actions have nothing to do with the CMRC, Dr. Crawley’s leadership role with the group has been well promoted. It is natural for observers to assume that she speaks for many if not most of the other board members, especially when she talks about research into ME/CFS.
Unlike Dr. Crawley, the rest of the scientific world is moving fast in the direction of open access to data. Although Dr. Holgate believes the CMRC has nothing to say about Dr. Crawley’s recent performance, other board members should certainly speak up if they don’t agree with the deputy chair’s view that freedom of information requests constitute harassment. And if they don’t think Dr. Crawley should disseminate false accusations of libel against those raising legitimate and still-unanswered questions, they should speak up about that as well.
It is hard to understand why Dr. Holgate and the CMRC board think the public or funders should support a research collaborative whose co-leader falsely accuses critics of libel and publicly advocates shielding trial data from scrutiny. I do hope Dr. Holgate and his colleagues find a way to improve on their current non-response going forward.