Scientists labor to discover nature’s truths, not design products. This makes it unfair to demand that they “cure cancer” in return for living on the public dole. Rather, we expect academic scientists to report on the fundamental rules that govern health and disease, passing their knowledge to commercial players to come up with products and services that improve our lives.
We also realize it can take years, sometimes even decades, for scientific advances to find their way into pharmacopeia and physician practice. This makes the benefits taxpayers receive from supporting scientists both indirect and difficult to measure. Which makes it fair to ask: Is the $31 billion of taxpayer money funneled to scientists each year through the National Institutes of Health being spent wisely?
For an endeavor that consumes billions, academic research remains a cottage industry of individual practitioners called Principle Investigators (PIs). Their search for truth begins with the quest for grant money, the mother’s milk of modern science. PI’s unlock the door to the treasury by having their grant applications reviewed by... fellow PIs.
PIs are business units unto themselves, employing laboratory slaves otherwise known as graduate students, who perform the bulk of the hands-on scientific work. As long as grant money keeps flowing, PIs answer to no one. They pay overhead to the universities that give them lab space and in return these universities confer upon PIs the singular ability to manumit their lab slaves by awarding them Ph.Ds. One cannot build a life as a tenured, taxpayer-supported scientist without one.
Lab slaves convert grant money into scientific papers that bear their PI’s names. Because lab slaves are comparatively cheap, the level of automation and efficiency in most academic labs is appallingly low. Hand work and manual data collection are the rule, both prone to error and vulnerable to selection bias. Only data approved by the PI gets submitted for publication.
Chasing Impact Factor
Scientific journals exist within a status hierarchy. Publishing in a high-impact journal gives PIs the one thing they crave as much as grant money—academic fame. Useful collaboration between grad students working for different PIs is often discouraged, as too many PI names on the papers dilute fame. The most prestige goes to PIs who plant their flag first in a new area, whether they develop it or not. Like the race to the South Pole, no one cares who got there second.
Before papers can be published they must be reviewed by... fellow PIs. PIs that review each other’s papers are not tasked with reproducing results, though politics can certainly play a role in critiquing conclusions. For some this means turning peer review into pal review. For others, it might mean delaying a rival’s pending publication.
If the whole system sounds like a medieval guild, that’s because it is.
We can be thankful that the vast majority of PIs operate with the highest degree of intellectual integrity. Such a small fraction of scientists engage in outright fabrication that when fraud is uncovered it makes national news. But the grey region short of fabrication covers a lot of ground, especially when pumping $31 billion a year through a medieval guild system.
How many times does an experiment have to be repeated before it is judged “successful?” What if that one-time “success” can’t be reproduced? How much inconvenient data gets discarded on the road to publication? Lab slaves that give PIs the results that they want, especially results confirming pet theories, move one step closer to freedom. Lab slaves that displease their PIs can wash glassware for years, or wash out with a master’s degree. Or worse, as in the infamous case of the Harvard chemistry professor who had three grad students commit suicide before the administration stepped in to make changes.
Reforming our graduate education system by introducing more transparency, accountability, and efficiency would help ensure taxpayers get their money’s worth. Is that too much to ask of a “War on Cancer” that has gone on for 40 years?
Bill Frezza is a consultant and venture capitalist living in Boston. He is a regular contributor to RealClearMarkets and Forbes.com. Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article also appeared in the 2011 July-August issue of Bio-IT World.