Thursday 20 April 2017

Science has taken a turn towards Darkness (2015)

Many members of the British public will be under the impression that the billions of pounds of their taxes that are spent every year by UK Government agencies on biomedical science, is money well spent. Apparently, the reality is in fact quite the opposite.

HERE is a frankly shocking editorial by Dr Richard Horton Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, the 55 year old Editor of The Lancet, one of the world's top medical journals.

In this piece, Horton describes a cosy meeting held under the Chatham House rule at the Wellcome Trust in April 2015 with some of the UK's top funders of biomedical science; the BBSRC, the MRC and the Wellcome Trust. 

Two of these agencies are handsomely paid for by the UK Government, with the aim of funding the highest quality basic biomedical science. In 2015/2016 the BBSRC spent £473 Million and the MRC £927.8 Million. Every penny of which was derived from UK tax payers.  

Here is what Horton has to say:

The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness. As one participant put it, “poor methods get results”. The Academy of Medical Sciences, Medical Research Council, and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council have now put their reputational weight behind an investigation into these questionable research practices. The apparent endemicity of bad research behaviour is alarming. In their quest for telling a compelling story, scientists too often sculpt data to fit their preferred theory of the world. Or they retrofit hypotheses to fit their data. Journal editors deserve their fair share of criticism too. We aid and abet the worst behaviours. Our acquiescence to the impact factor fuels an unhealthy competition to win a place in a select few journals. Our love of “significance” pollutes the literature with many a statistical fairy-tale. We reject important confirmations. Journals are not the only miscreants. Universities are in a perpetual struggle for money and talent, endpoints that foster reductive metrics, such as high-impact publication. National assessment procedures,such as the Research Excellence Framework, incentivise bad practices. And individual scientists, including their most senior leaders, do little to alter a research culture that occasionally veers close to misconduct. 

Dr Horton then goes on to say:

Can bad scientific practices be fixed? Part of the problem is that no-one is incentivised to be right. Instead, scientists are incentivised to be productive and innovative. 

This is shameful. No scientist should need to be incentivised to be right. Science, if it is anything at all, is all about being right. Meaning in this case: seeking to understand the truth about nature and natural phenomena.

The sponsors of the symposium that Horton attended in April 2015 have published the outcomes of the symposium, an action plan and an update on progress HERE. Perhaps, in years to come, the next editor of The Lancet may be able to write an opinion piece which describes a situation in bio medical science that is very different than today's: A turn away from darkness.