What is the state of biomedical research?

This week, a couple of articles caught my eye. One discusses how drug development companies may need to come up with a better method for doing pharmaceutical research. The other discusses guidelines for greater transparency in clinical trials. Last week, I reported on the prevalence of bias in the scientific literature. All of these articles seem to point towards the need for changes in how research is conducted and researchers are held accountable.

The first article from the BBC addresses some fundamental problems with the old model of drug discovery:

This so-called blockbuster method – which commits large sums of money to finding a drug that promises to treat a huge proportion of the population, and generate swathes of cash to cover other experimental losses – can no longer sustain the industry.

Drug discovery is expensive and inefficient. Furthermore, the promise of genetically tailor-made drugs has proven to be much more difficult than originally thought, and much less lucrative. Many researchers believe that the market is going towards tailor-made drugs, but they also believe the current model is not conducive to developing drugs that will not have a mass market. According to this article, one of the problems with the current model is researchers do not publish negative results; therefore competing companies will often re-do experiments that will not work. As a result, some scientists call for greater collaboration and free access to data.

The BBC article is the positive side. Another article by the American Medical Association addresses the negative side of biomedical research. In this article the AMA calls for greater transparency in clinical trial research to avoid the growing number of discrepancies in reporting data:

There is good reason for suspicion of industry-funded research, say experts who point to examples such as Merck’s selective reporting of cardiovascular data related to Vioxx (rofecoxib), which the company withdrew from the market in 2004 due to the increased heart attack risk linked to the anti-inflammatory drug.

These are important, and I think, good steps towards accountability in research. Now, I want to take a step back and address the broader issue in these reports of bias, transparency, and methodology in research.

In some ways, the most surprising thing about these reports is that they are surprising. It is as if we are just learning that scientists are human too, with all of the baggage that comes with human nature. Scientists are passionate about their subject. They want to succeed. Sometimes they are willing to lie, cheat or steal to succeed. Sometimes, with best of intentions, they see what they want to see in the data or their “randomization” is not really very random. The tone of many of these reports suggests that the “humanness” of science is a surprising new finding.

I can attest that there is no special cleansing ritual in graduate school that somehow removes the sin of human emotion and bias from you. We do not have a class on stoicism and there is not some drug they give us when we receive our first lab coat and glasses that makes us into a docile, honest, objective observer of the world. Admittedly, many of us do get big egos, but that comes with time.

So considering that science is done by human beings, why hasn’t there been more accountability? Perhaps what is surprising is not that scientists are human but that the scientific method is not impenetrable. Our humanness affects it too. Perhaps on a deeper level, we are coming to grips with the fact that our conduit for objective truth is not so objective after all.

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