Saturday, April 21, 2012

Why Science Whistleblowers Are Ignored

The 4/20/2012 Wall Street Journal highlighted a little-known but widespread problem in cancer research in their article, "Lab Mistakes Hobble Cancer Studies But Scientists Slow to Take Remedies".

(If the article link doesn't work, you can paste the title into a Google search window to get access to the full piece.)

Basically, hundreds of cancer cell samples in scientific laboratories are either contaminated or misidentified -- which casts doubt on the reliability of any subsequent scientific results. The WSJ piece notes:
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 are being 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 that such misidentification of tumor cells (and unwillingness of senior scientists to address this problem) could have serious downstream impact on medical care for patients:
But when 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."
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.
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 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".

One critical question is how much government funding of science is contributing to this problem. As Bill Frezza wryly noted on Twitter: "$5B/yr to unaccountable tenured academics. What could go wrong?"

University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds (aka Instapundit) similarly noted, "There's lots of government money. That leads to corruption."

Forbes columnist David Shaywitz shows how this corruption plays out in the university science labs:
...[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.
He concludes:
At the end of the day, I suspect that 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.
While the process may ultimately be self-correcting (and I certainly believe that science "works"), the cycle time for this can be a lifetime (literally -- in some cases I've heard it said you need to wait for someone to pass away before contrary ideas can truly gain traction).
As a result, scientific dissenters and whistleblowers raising inconvenient questions about the integrity of the published results are too easily ignored or branded as troublemakers.

One of the reasons that many Americans no longer trust politicians' pronouncements about "global warming" (or "global climate disruption" as it's now called) is because they've seen how a similar dynamic has seemingly led to unsound scientific and policy conclusions. Americans are rightly skeptical of politicians' claims that "the science is settled".

It's bad enough if government funding helps promotes bad climate science. But if government funding is also contributing to the corruption of American biomedical research, then American patients may pay the ultimate price in the form of lives lost due to flawed or ineffective medical treatments.

(Related post: "Bad Science, Bad Medicine?", 4/18/2012.)