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

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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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Sad news: Yoshiki Sasai commits suicide (co-author on 2 Nature STAP stem cell papers)

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Huffington Post reports that Yoshiki Sasai has apparently committed suicide. Sasai was a mentor and co-author on the 2 retracted Nature papers that describe STAP (stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency) stem cells.

Sasai’s team retracted the research papers from British science journal Nature over co-author Haruko Obokata’s alleged malpractice, which she has contested. Retractions of papers in major scientific journals are extremely rare, and the scandal was a major embarrassment to Japanese scientific research.

While fraud and misconduct are extremely bad for the scientific community, and this was a very public example of scientific misconduct, it is very sad to see this result. CauseScience sends its condolences to Sasai’s family, friends, colleagues, and peer researchers. 

Not guilty plea in criminal AIDS vaccine fraud case #spikedsamples

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Dong-Pyou Han, the researcher who is criminally charged with falsifying data to get millions of dollars in federal research grant money, has entered a not guilty plea. Han was involved in a research project for an AIDS vaccine that led to breakthroughs that were later deemed to be fake. See my earlier post here for more info on why this was a big deal and how it all went down. Huffington Post has a great news article summarizing what happened in court by David Pitt.

According to prosecutors, Han wrote a letter to university officials before he resigned last fall in which he confessed that he had spiked samples of rabbit blood with human antibodies to make an experimental HIV vaccine appear to have great promise. Han told them he started the fraud in 2009 “because he wanted (results) to look better” and that he acted alone. “I was foolish, coward, and not frank,” he allegedly wrote.

Criminal charges and possible jail time for scientific fraud and research misconduct #abouttime

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Federal prosecutors are filing charges against Dong-Pyou Han after a major case of disgusting research misconduct having to do with a breakthrough AIDS vaccine. Great news article here.

Investigators say former Iowa State University laboratory manager Dong-Pyou Han has confessed to spiking samples of rabbit blood with human antibodies to make an experimental HIV vaccine appear to have great promise. After years of work and millions in National Institutes of Health grants, another laboratory uncovered irregularities that suggested the results — once hailed as groundbreaking — were bogus. Han was indicted last week on four counts of making false statements, each of which carries up to five years in prison.
To me, it is about time that researchers who waste American taxpayer money by committing obvious scientific fraud be held accountable. Not only is this type of fraud a gross waste of research money (that could have gone to someone who was not making up data), it also has the bigger problem of encouraging public mistrust of scientists. Ivan Oransky, of Retraction Watch (definitely check out his blog), gives his opinion on the case:
“It’s an important case because it is extremely rare for scientists found to have committed fraud to be held accountable by the actual criminal justice system,” said Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch, which tracks research misconduct.
I completely agree, and it is nice to see that scientists will be held accountable for wasting money and destroying the credibility of scientists as a community. Retractions of papers due to intentional fraud are increasing, and this will be the topic of my next “Problems in Science” post. What drives scientists to lie and make up data? How can we stop this? How will the scientists be held accountable (looks like some might serve jail time)? Check out my first post in the series (Part 1: The broken economics of academic publishing)