Does less money encourage scientists to cut corners?? Richard Harris reports for @NPR


We at CauseScience have certainly been WOWed by the terrific reporting by Richard Harris and NPR on current issues in biomedical science over the last week! However, the article above on NPR from Richard Harris seems considerably less supportive of scientists. The article points out some very real issues that have arisen due to funding cuts in terms of patients involved in clinical trials. However, to me, the article also insinuates that funding cuts have made scientists lose their scientific integrity (cash-strapped scientists cut corners).

There’s a funding crunch for biomedical research in the United States — and it’s not just causing pain for scientists and universities. It’s also creating incentives for researchers to cut corners — and that’s affecting people who are seriously ill.

Take, for example, the futile search for drugs to treat ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The progressive, degenerative disease of the brain and nerve cells has been the focus of recent publicity, thanks to the Ice Bucket Challenge.

Harris is 100% correct on the negative impact of the funding cuts over the last decade that hurt researchers, universities, and patients (as he has examined in many of his other great articles). Most researchers are strapped for cash AND time, and have had to spend more and more time trying to get cash. Therefore, scientists cannot do all of the experiments they would like to, and so experiments get prioritized. This means that in some studies, crucial experiments (or replication/validation) can’t be performed to the highest standard due to lack of time and money and other resources.

But… there is a big difference between scientists not having time and money to correctly execute experiments, and scientists ‘cutting corners’ and overselling results to get ahead. The vast majority of scientists want to perform high quality research that will benefit patients. Harris correctly points out that replication is an issue in ALS research, as well as in ALL fields of biomedical research (see CauseScience posts about retractions, fraud, and research misconduct). And while it is true that as funding becomes harder to get, scientists are under more pressure to sell their science, the proportion of scientists committing actual fraud, misconduct, and retracting papers, is a tiny minority (that is starting to be addressed). And as far as careers where there is true fraud going on, society is detrimentally affected much more by many others compared with scientists (ahem: politicians, wall street, etc).

The emphasis of the article should be that patients become vulnerable when scientists do not have ADEQUATE funding. Emphasis on funding, not on scientists cutting corners.

Additionally, in my biased opinion, Harris’ use of ALS research is a terrible example. If only because the ‘futile search for drugs to treat ALS’ predates any current or past crunch on biomedical funding.

Most of the experimental ALS drugs, it turns out, undergo very perfunctory testing in animals before moving into human tests — based on flimsy evidence.

Recent funding cuts have little to do with the ‘very perfunctory testing in animals before moving into human tests’ when it comes to ALS research and ALS clinical trials. Until the recent explosion in genetic and molecular findings in ALS, very little was known about ALS, and clinical research was based on a relatively poor mouse model representing only a small fraction of ALS cases. The amount and stringency of drug testing done in this model before moving into humans has not undergone dramatic changes with funding cuts. While this may seem like ‘bad’ research, it was a whole lot better than no research. Especially when you consider the extremely short survival time of ALS patients, which creates a constant ‘race’ to find a cure. Case in point, the Ebola treatments and vaccines that were recently fast-tracked by the NIH and FDA with rather limited preliminary data. This isn’t an ideal way to perform science, but should it be considered cutting corners?

Harris notes the only positive aspect of these failures to translate treatments into patients, and that is increased stringency in taking drugs to humans.

Landis has since added new guidelines that scientists must follow before the neurology institute will fund large drug tests on people.

“There are now clinical trials that would have been funded five to seven years ago which won’t be funded until the preclinical studies are done in a way that is actually believable,” she says.

In principle, this should help scientists focus on more promising therapies.

It is great that NIH and NINDS are emphasizing solid preliminary research before moving into human trials. It would be great to see potential drugs validated using the best experimental designs and replicated by multiple groups, but that requires a financial commitment that has not always been available.

Most scientists do not want to cut corners, do not want to negatively impact patients, and certainly do not expect glory or fame. The vast majority of scientists want to learn something new and help people and society. Lastly, there is not only a desperate need for scientists to communicate and sell their research for their own funding, but even more importantly to generate public and political support for science funding. Harris’ inclusion of ALS, which is not the best example, but definitely a trending and popular one, demonstrates the ease with which we slip into trying to sell a good story. Scientists and writers beware.

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