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The Dilemmas of Science

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#1 Dr. Joseph Lorenzo

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Posted 15 February 2013 - 02:43 PM

I recently came across the editorial work of Ferric Fang and Arturo Casadevall through a profile in the magazine Science (1). They are well-known microbiologists and editors of publications for the American Society of Microbiology. In addition to their scientific contributions, they have authored a series of editorials and papers about the current state of science and the pressures that confront scientists. Some of their publications have explored the problem of scientific fraud and the stresses that many scientists feel to publish in high impact journals in order to better assure success in achieving grant funding and career advancement. Although not the first to do so, Fang and Casadevall found that there was a direct correlation between the rate that papers were retracted from a journal and the impact factor of that journal (2). In a publication with R. Grant Steen (3) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, they reviewed 2,047 retracted biomedical and life-science research articles and found that 67% of retractions were attributable to misconduct, including fraud or suspected fraud (43%), duplicate publication (14%), and plagiarism (10%). While the actual number of papers that are retracted is very low (about 1 in 10,000), the impact of any scientific fraud is far reaching and includes much wasted effort and resources by other scientists in attempts to reproduce the fraudulent finding as well as a loss of confidence by the general public in the integrity of scientists. The latter point is particularly troubling since it is the taxpayers of most countries who provide the funds, which support the majority of research worldwide. Finally, they found that males commit the majority of scientific fraud and that senior scientists have the highest rate of fraud (4).

However, Fang and Casadevall also have written an editorial that outlines their vision of the steps that need to taken to improve the infrastructure of science (5). They point out that the primary issue, particularly in the United States, is inadequate funding. They state:

“Grant review panels are regularly forced to decide between competing highly meritorious projects. While some competition is inarguably good for science, excessive competition is demoralizing, destructive, and counterproductive. Funding agencies cannot continue to reject more than nine-tenths of grant applications without seriously damaging science. In the current climate, good ideas are going unsupported, opportunities are being squandered, and capable scientists are being lost.”

They are also critical of the “increasing emphasis on targeted funded research”. They point out that many novel therapies are the products of results from basic research that was performed without a clinical application for that research. An example they cite is the rapid development of anti-HIV medications, which relied on years of research into retroviruses that was performed when there was scant evidence that these agents caused human diseases.
Other areas that need to be addressed are the failure to adequately promote women and minorities in science and the increasing administrative burden imposed on scientists by regulatory agencies.

However they are most critical of the current peer review process. They state:
“Review panels are able to accurately identify bad science but have a poor record of distinguishing highly innovative work or work that challenges existing dogma. Reviewers can be counted on to identify the top 20 to 30% of grant applications, but identifying the top 10% is impossible without a crystal ball or time machine.”

They list a variety of solutions for these ills. Foremost among them is a demand for a system that provides more stability for the funding of science. They also deem it critical that basic research be recognized as an essential element of science. They cite articles that indicate that there are diminishing returns in the efficiency of a laboratory after it exceeds a critical size and suggest that it may be better to limit the size of any one investigator’s funding to maintain labs at optimum size. Finally, they ask that a careful evaluation of the current regulatory burden on scientists be performed and that the scientific method itself be used to best determine how science should be structured to enable it to generate the greatest benefits for all of us.

Joe Lorenzo
Farmington, CT, USA

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