Decrying “Wishful Science” on NPR(!)

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

First, a disclaimer. I don’t listen to NPR. “State radio” bugs me. But I have friends who do, and I was bowled over when one sent me a seemingly innocuous story about the search for a pharmaceutical treatment for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis [ALS], the horrific ailment also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

I knew something big was about to happen when correspondent Richard Harris led off with this zinger:

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.

Predictably, NPR, itself a federally (and privately) funded creature, said the problem was a lack of funding, even titling the piece, “Patients Vulnerable When Cash-Strapped Scientists Cut Corners.”

Allow NPR its sins, because what’s in the article is one key to a very disturbing trend, not just in biomedical science, but in “most disciplines and countries.” It seems that negative results are systematically disappearing from science. Those words appear in the title of a blockbuster 2012 article by University of Montreal’s Daniele Fanelli, more completely, “Negative Results are Disappearing from Most Disciplines and Countries.”

Memo to NPR:  Scientists  are always “cash-strapped.” Just ask one. The reason is very simple, and can be illustrated by my area, climate science.

There are actually very few people formally trained at the doctoral level in this field (yours truly being one of them).  One reason was that, prior to the specter of anthropogenerated climate change, there wasn’t very much money from the federal government. It was about a $50 million a year operation, if that much. We didn’t have enough research dough. 

Now the federal outlay is $2.3 billion. Guess what: we’re all climate scientists now. So ecologists, plant biologists, and even psychologists hitched their wagons to this gravy train. Today’s shocker: we don’t have enough research dough.

What Harris found out about ALS really does apply in a Fanelli-like fashion. It seems that drugs that work fine on mice and rats flop miserably when tested on humans. It turns out that the animal studies were all pretty shoddy.

Story Landis, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, explained why.  According to NPR, “There is no single answer, she says, but part of the explanation relates to a growing issue in biomedical science: the mad scramble for scarce research dollars.”  She went on: “The field has become hypercompetitive,” and NPR added, “Many excellent grant proposals get turned down, simply because there’s not enough money to go around. So Landis says scientists are tempted to oversell weak results.”  

“Getting a grant requires that you have an exciting story to tell, that you have preliminary data and you have published”, she says. “In the rush, to be perfectly honest, to get a wonderful story out on the street in a journal, and preferably with some publicity to match, scientists can cut corners.”

According to a research paper published earlier this year, corner-cutting turned out to be the rule, rather than the exception, in animal studies of ALS.

Stefano Bertuzzi, the executive director of the American Society for Cell Biology, says that’s because there is little incentive for scientists to take the time to go back and verify results from other labs;

“You want to be the first one to show something”, he says—not the one to verify or dispute a finding, “because you won’t get a big prize for that.”

Landis noted that “ALS is not the only example of this type of wishful science [emphasis added].”  She found similar problems with other drugs for other diseases.

It’s too bad that NPR didn’t then go to Montreal’s Fanelli, because they would have found that similar problems are infecting science everywhere, which is why Cato now has a Center for the Study of Science.

Coming up: I’ll be posting soon on what this does to science itself.  Teaser: if there’s little incentive to publish negative results, whatever reigning paradigm is operating in a given field will be very resistant to change. As the Center for the Study of Science’s Richard Lindzen has observed, there has been a remarkable lack of paradigm substitution in overall science as research budgets ballooned. Ironically, the more we spend on science, the more science can be harmed.