Two recent articles in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have exposed a little-known but growing problem of sloppy science and ethical misconduct in medical research that could be dangerous to American patients.
The Wall Street Journal described how hundreds of cancer cell samples in scientific laboratories around the world are either contaminated or misidentified — which casts doubt on the reliability of any subsequent scientific results:
Cancer experts seeking to solve the problem have found that a fifth to a third or more of cancer cell lines tested were mistakenly identified — with researchers unwittingly studying the wrong cancers, slowing progress toward new treatments and wasting precious time and money.
Even worse, the more conscientious scientists warning about this problem have been ignored by their colleagues:
…[R]esearchers who yelled loudest were mostly ignored by colleagues fearful such a mistake in their own labs would discredit years of work.
Leaders in the field say one of the biggest obstacles to finding a cancer cure may not be the many defenses nature affords malignancies, but the reluctance of scientists to address the problem.
Dr. John Masters, a professor of experimental pathology at University College London, warns this could affect patient care:
…[W]hen seeking cancer treatment for a specific tumor, he said, such mistakes “are an utter waste of public money, charity money and time.” Worse, he added, “It may be causing drugs to be used which are inappropriate for that particular type of cancer.
Dr. Masters put his finger on the core issue:
The whole ethos of science is to strive for the truth and produce a balanced argument about the evidence. Yet, all this crap is being produced.
Unfortunately, these scientific and ethical problems with cancer research are just part of a bigger problem in biomedical research.
The New York Times recently reported on the alarming rise of inaccurate (or sometimes outright fraudulent) results being published in respectable medical journals, which then required a retraction once the errors (or misconduct) were discovered. The two medical journal editors investigating this phenomenon “reached a troubling conclusion” that there was a much broader “dysfunctional scientific climate.”
The investigators identified 2 important factors contributing to this dysfunctional climate:
- “[S]cience has changed in some worrying ways in recent decades — especially biomedical research, which consumes a larger and larger share of government science spending”
- “To survive professionally, scientists feel the need to publish as many papers as possible, and to get them into high-profile journals. And sometimes they cut corners or even commit misconduct to get there.”
As blogger Glenn Reynolds observed, “There’s lots of government money. That leads to corruption.”
Forbes columnist David Shaywitz described how this corruption plays out in university labs:
…[The problem involves some combination of the law of small numbers, the appeal of narrative, the structural advantages of reinforcing dogma, and the difficulties of publishing negative results that might challenge it, especially if the dogma was advanced by senior leaders in the field who tend to play critical roles in reviewing papers for high-profile journals and in selecting which new research gets funded.
As a result:
...[T]here’s often a circular quality to academic research, where a particular model system, or particular enzyme, or particular brain region, or particular analytical approach becomes very trendy, and then it takes on a life of its own.
Scientific dissenters and whistleblowers raising inconvenient questions about the integrity of the published results are thus too often ignored or branded as troublemakers.