If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.




July 26, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 30

Taking on dietary supplements

In reference to "Reining in Dietary Supplements," I am primarily concerned by the federal government's drive to impose blanket restrictions on the manufacture of herbal medicines (C&EN, June 21, page 21). The government has the commendable desire to protect consumers from "significant and unreasonable risks," but is that really the issue? If herbal medicine currently operates beyond the regulatory pale, it is because "modern" medicine has relegated it to the sidelines. (And as we have seen, one cannot simultaneously marginalize something while holding it to "mainstream" standards.) Herbal medicine is nearly as old as humankind itself. As my own herbal teacher says, "We would not be here as a species without it."

The real issues involved are economic and cultural. We have a pharmaceutical industry that often ignores chronic health concerns in favor of building the next "blockbuster" drug. We have a medical culture that, by and large, does not encourage patients to take responsibility for their own health; rather, doctors are the unquestioned experts who dole out pharmaceutical silver bullets, and patient ignorance is a matter of course. We have a popular culture that stresses beauty, appearance, and, paradoxically, poor dietary choices, rather than actual good health. Everything is dangerous in sufficiently large quantities, including aspirin, alcohol, and laxatives. Given these factors, why are we surprised that some people will abuse any substance? (Incidentally, your article fails to mention that the dangers with ephedra were linked to coconsumption with caffeine, resulting in overstimulation of the nervous and cardiovascular systems.)

I was also shocked that the article concluded with Sen. George V. Voinovich's anecdotal quote in which he implies that his brother's death by stroke was directly related to dietary supplements. The author does not comment on this statement, thereby tacitly supporting it. Is this the scientific standard by which the Food & Drug Administration and C&EN would see the Dietary Supplement Health & Education Act enforced--anecdotal evidence? Should not C&EN set an example for higher evidentiary standards than that?

Michael J. Haas
Wilmington, Del.


"Reining in dietary supplements" contains two statements about aristolochic acid that are erroneous. The first says that "those [supplements] containing aristolochic acid can cause liver failure." I am not aware of any scientific study supporting that statement, but it is well accepted that aristolochic acid can cause severe nephrotoxicity. About a decade ago, a number of subjects in a Belgian clinical trial of a weight-loss product containing a mixture of Chinese herbs developed nephrotoxicity, some cases so severe as to require kidney transplants. Continued monitoring of the subject group also revealed an abnormally high incidence of kidney tumors. Two incidents were also reported in Great Britain.

It was subsequently determined that one plant (Aristolochia fangchi) had been inappropriately substituted for another (Stephania tetrandra) in the test formulation, probably because of confusion arising from very similar Chinese names for the two rather distinct plants ("Guang Fang ji" versus "Han Fang ji," respectively). This last point is relevant to the other misstatement in your story: "FDA is trying to gather information on bitter orange, aristolochic acid, and usnic acid, three weight-loss substances." Aristolochic acid is not a weight-loss substance and is not, nor should it be, promoted for that purpose. Its presence in a single weight-loss formulation was an error, a tragic error that could have been averted by compliance with Good Manufacturing Practices. In response, FDA issued a public warning and requested a recall of all products containing the plant genus Aristolochia and other plants, a total of about 600 species that might contain aristolochic acid; the herbal supplement industry cooperated with the recall. I have not seen a report of a case of aristolochic-acid-induced nephrotoxicity in the U.S.

John H. Cardellina II
Walkersville, Md.


Teaching lessons

The article "Where Are They Now?" (C&EN, June 21, 2004, page 36) concerning the experiences of seven new professors caught my attention because of their early experiences with teaching. Comments included feeling unprepared for the workload and being surprised by the low level of student maturity. They described an evaluation process that relied heavily on end-of-term student evaluations and only occasional peer review or mentoring. There is a lot of talk about teaching as an activity but almost no talk about student learning as the key outcome of that activity.

How much more productive might these new faculty have been in research had they not had to start from scratch in teaching? How much more would students in their classes have learned had these new faculty already been knowledgeable and experienced in teaching and learning? How much more likely would a positive tenure decision be?

There is a growing understanding of the cognitive and social nature of learning and of key conceptual obstacles to learning in chemistry. There is also an expanding knowledge of curriculum structures that promote more effective learning, of types of professional development and mentoring that help one become a more effective teacher, and of assessment approaches for understanding what students are experiencing. Very few Ph.D. programs are using this knowledge to offer graduate students systematic opportunities to become as knowledgeable and ready for teaching as they are for research.

Since nearly all Ph.D.s entering academia will teach but only some will be heavily involved in research, prospective graduate students should be asking some hard questions about how invested a graduate program is in providing its students state-of-the-art preparation for teaching.

Christopher F. Bauer
Durham, N.H.

Solar energy's hidden costs


I read both solar energy cover stories, waiting for the bottom line when it comes to pollution (C&EN, June 21, pages 25 and 29). Most people agree that solar cells are "clean--no air pollution, no greenhouse gas, and no coal or radioactive wastes."

But do you know how we make solar cells? How do we reduce tons of silicon oxide (sand) to form the amounts of silicon required for solar cells? The answer: We burn fossil fuels! It's conceivable that one day we'll have enough preexisting solar cells to power a silicon plant, but when will that be? And as for now, what are the total amounts of chemical and greenhouse waste produced per cell fabricated?

I am 100% for the use of solar cells in the U.S.; however, I humbly request a follow-up story which investigates these matters. This could prove to be a critical issue, especially with regard to the next-generation technologies outlined in the second article.

Kevin L. Kelly
New Haven, Conn.


Measuring science

I find the title "Science Is Becoming Truly Worldwide" (C&EN, June 14, page 38) to be more accurate than the tone of the editorial bemoaning the U.S. losing a race ("Pursuing Scientific Excellence," C&EN, June 14, page 5). I find that in my community in Connecticut, there is a widespread fear of science, a preference for sentimental simplicity, and a general lack of hearty curiousity about how things work. Thus, even besides the issues of government support, there is an attitudinal lapse in the U.S., which sets us behind places where people are eagerly and energetically pursuing the frontiers of science and technology.

Michael Stitelman
Branford, Conn.


Your article on global changes in scientific publishing concludes that U.S. scientific productivity is declining based on the metric of absolute numbers of scientific publications within the U.S. Although you recognize at the end of the article that other metrics might be more important in describing scientific activity, I would suggest that article publishing by itself cannot provide a useful measure of scientific productivity, as there are factors that affect this number without having a discernable effect on the quality/quantity of the scientific endeavor.

For instance, as the costs of doing research increase and budget lines do not augment correspondingly, what is the impact? How does Bayh-Dole impact these numbers? For more than 20 years, academic scientists have been encouraged to privatize their discoveries and other intellectual property; regardless of your stand on this controversial issue, where do patents and their eventual introduction into the marketplace come in?

What about the impact of not publishing as liberally or freely as in the past because of disclosure concerns? An interesting factor may have an impact on publication and correlates negatively with scientific productivity: As scientific productivity that becomes privatized increases, public disclosure might be predicted to decrease.

Another factor to consider is the assessment of the quality of publications. It is one thing to publish many papers and another quite different thing to publish many good papers.

The publication of research findings is the final link in a long chain of events that is initiated by the recognition of a state that funding of R&D is in the national interest and that resources need to be committed to this end. This is followed by the availability of financial and human resources, their allocation, and a comparable climate for public disclosure of results. Because not all countries can commit the same absolute amount of human and monetary resources, the absolute number of publications will not accurately represent their scientific productivity or the quality of their research.

More meaningful metrics of scientific productivity need to take into account both sides of the equation: funding + people = research (research publication). Therefore, it would be interesting to correlate the absolute publication numbers posted in your article to the level of funding existent in each of the countries examined; this would address the question of how effective research funding is in promoting scientific knowledge as demonstrated by scientific publications.

The effect of human resources on research output could be measured by relating the number of researchers in a particular country to the number of scientific publications they produce. This publication- per-researcher ratio would more accurately represent the scientific productivity within the sphere of influence of a state. Even more meaningful would be to relate all three concepts (people, funding, research productivity) by measuring the ratio of researchers in a state to its total population and then to the total number of research publications produced within a time period.

The equations for social science research are rarely linear, always report observations with a healthy dose of how mitigating factors impact the variation, and admit strongly to the difference between correlation and causation. Your data are an interesting starting point for an interesting conversation; but alone, they say nothing.

Gorka Peris
Ann Arbor, Mich.


This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.