by Patrick Cox
June 6, 2017
Until this year, April 22 was celebrated by many as Earth Day. The focus of Earth Day events was support for environmental protection, particularly climate accords. The image of Earth Day has been compared to a renaissance fair, complete with references to Gaia and other quasi-mystical earth-mother notions.
This year, the movement did an about-face, explicitly embracing “science.” Earth Day was eclipsed by the “March for Science.”
The rebranding may have been an effort to counter the perception that Earth Day is anti-technology and anti-industrial. That image complicated the movement’s efforts to promote its views of climate science. Moreover, Americans show little interest in giving give up smartphones, air-conditioning or modern medicine.
The timing of the rebranding may not be optimal though. Academic science is currently suffering from a major credibility problem. Generally called the “reproducibility crisis,” it is that most peer-reviewed papers cannot be confirmed as accurate. When scientists try to duplicate studies published in academic journals, between 65% and 90% fail to yield the same results.
Obviously, this raises the possibility that “science” is either wrong or fraudulent even when it enjoys peer-reviewed consensus status.
According to Richard Price, founder of Academia.edu, Glenn Begley, PhD, deserves credit for bringing this troubling fact to public attention. While running Amgen’s oncology division, Begley tried to reproduce the 53 papers that form the foundational consensus of cancer researchers. Only six were reproducible.
Though it may not be evident to outsiders, academic science is shaken to its core. Important scientific publications recognize the problem and have focused on restoring reproducibility and integrity to formerly respected institutions.
Susannah Cahalan’s recent story in the New York Post, Medical Studies Are Almost Always Bogus, reflects growing public resentment. A new book by Richard Harris is even angrier. I haven’t read it but the title is Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions.
It is particularly troubling that taxpayer funds are being spent on biomedical research that may impede progress but other areas of academic publishing are worse. Social “science” journals are regularly spoofed by scientists disgusted by their own profession.
Economics and climatology have problems because it’s impossible to perform controlled and blinded studies. By their nature, papers published in these areas are usually nonreproducible … even if they’re true.
If the reproducibility crisis surprises you, you’re not a research scientist. My job entails tracking scientific breakthroughs, so I know that real research scientists are more skeptical of peer-reviewed papers than are non-scientists. They know that fraudulent and sloppy research is common. Even honest intelligent researchers, however, make mistakes. Unknown factors can lead to erroneous conclusions.
It appears, for example, that rodents used in many biomedical studies react differently to researchers based on their gender. They can smell the difference. As males are more likely to be the hunter/predator in most species, male researchers make rodents nervous and effect their health.
An article in Nature summarizes the conclusion that “Male Researchers Stress Out Rodents.” The original study is titled, “Olfactory Exposure to Males, Including Men, Causes Stress and Related Analgesia in Rodents.”
If true, this means that many thousands of important and trusted studies may be seriously flawed. We should not, however, assume that the Nature paper on gender impacts is true. It may be but no real scientist believes anything based solely on one study. The best scientists question the most settled science. For example, everything that was commonly believed about salt consumption is currently being challenged. The same is true of saturated fat.
So why is the signal to noise ratio so bad in academic sciences? One factor is distilled into the axiom, publish or perish. If your job security requires publishing in journals, you may be more interested in being published than in producing meaningful research.
This doesn’t mean that academic researchers do not contribute to scientific progress. They clearly do. Some of the greatest biomedical breakthroughs of our era have come out of university labs. Typically, however, those successes are then spun off into biotech startups. Then things change.
Capitalism enforces a kind of discipline in the sciences not always found in academia. Investors want marketable results, not citations. Moreover, fear of the SEC and FDA contribute to the invisibility of private sector scientists. Companies that publish misleading information are subject to severe legal penalties that academics need not fear.
Additionally, researchers who are developing potentially profitable products are naturally much less open. If you’re in a race to find a cure for some disease, you probably won’t share critical insights with your competition.
When private sector scientists do publish, it is often only to establish the basis for patent applications. In many cases, biotech companies don’t even apply for patents. Fearing that others will pirate or reverse-engineer their discoveries, they rely on trade secrets to protect their intellectual property.
The result is that many of the most important scientific discoveries are shrouded in secrecy. Financial analysts and major investors often accept nondisclosure agreements just to find out what’s happening inside biotechs.
To succeed financially, scientists in the private sector sacrifice the recognition and prestige that academic scientists enjoy. I know of multiple instances of Nobel prizes being awarded to academics who published results previously produced by private-sector scientists.
Moreover, science publications tend to get their information from universities. I regularly see stories announcing some historic breakthrough that actually occurred long ago in a private sector lab. An example is the spate of recent stories about the first human blood grown from stem cells. In fact, Advanced Cell Technologies, under the management of Dr. Michael West, grew blood from stem cells about a decade ago.
Though private sector scientists may envy the respect and perks of academia, capitalism enforces a kind of discipline not always found in academia. This is why the most important biomedical science is taking place in private sector labs with no concern for reproducibility or consensus.