Friday, January 20, 2012

The Flawed Environment of Academic Research

My previous post discussed how mistaken thinking about research evidence in nutrition has led to a misleading or even false understanding of how we should approach and maintain our health. A broader question than the argument-from-uncertainty fallacy arises: what is it in the nature of scientific investigation that makes these kinds of errors possible? The short answer is that there is no free market in science that would facilitate the quick awareness of both innovation and error. What we have today is government domination of research that deflects attention away from concern for the constituents the science is intended to serve, for example, doctors and their patients in medicine, to compliance with the rules of grantsmanship and peer review the ultimate aim of which is publication for tenure and promotion in the cloistered academic world.*

Though data fabrication and other frauds do occur, the most important cause of flawed research is the “what do we have to do to get the money and then the publication” attitude. This expedient in the protected environment of academia leads to conventional, uninspired, and sometimes substandard, politically biased, and irrelevant work, much of it amounting to useless minutia. I don’t mean to imply that there is a willful disregard for truth or facts on the part of researchers, though again that sometimes does occur, but that the system in which academics compete for money and accolades predisposes them to pursue conventional lines of inquiry.

“The problem in science,” states the chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, “is that the way you get ahead is by staying within narrow parameters and doing what other people are doing. No one wants to fund wild new ideas.” Except profit-making private companies like Revlon. And peer review does not encourage originality or novelty. As British medical researcher David Horrobin pointed out in 1995, the acceptance of eighteen medical innovations was either delayed or thwarted by the process. The system is also notorious for not publishing findings that are negative, that is, studies that do not produce significant findings, on the alleged assumption that what works is more important and interesting than what does not.

In my 2007 posts (1, 2) on peer review I argued that fear of the new governs and that the process is no guarantee of objectivity. This last has been demonstrated by studies retrospectively analyzing the results of published work. How so? “Miscalculation, poor study design or self-serving data analysis,” in the words of Wall Street Journal science writer Robert Lee Hotz. The pressures of publication cause sloppiness and cherry picking of the data—data mining or data massaging, as researchers call it, to find something publishable. (Selection bias was the term used in last month’s post.) All of this then brings about a recurrent lack of replication of the original study. Failure to replicate puts the science  back to square one. Often it is the private, profit-making companies, using the double-blind research technique, who cannot replicate the work of the academics, because academics frequently fail to double-blind their experiments.

Horrobin’s solution to the screening and gatekeeping process of peer review was to divide the research money equally among researchers, then let the researchers be guided by their own interests in choosing what to study. This would remove the rule-bound, paper pushing requirements of the bureaucracy and free scientists to do what they do best, namely research. Horrobin pointed out that research money was distributed in precisely this way prior to 1960 in Great Britain and resulted in more medical innovations then than since. Of course, the grant money Horrobin was talking about was from the government. Remove government involvement in research and let more retained earnings of profit-making businesses be made available and you will see more responsiveness to the market, that is, to the consumers of the research.

Bureaucrats—anyone who works for or is excessively regulated by the government, including college professors who are most of the researchers I am talking about—answer only to the requirements of the bureaucracy. Profit-making businesses, on the other hand, have a huge incentive to innovate, to increase their profits; if they make mistakes, they pay dearly, and not just in lost sales or return on investment. The bureaucrat’s response to anyone who complains about the conventionality or mistakes of present-day research is to say, “I just follow the rules. We have a process to follow if the rules need to be changed. It may take time, but that’s the way it is.”

Entrepreneurial innovators and innovative researchers don’t hesitate to go outside the conventional box, which means they don’t follow rules. Their attitude is, “What can we do to push back the frontiers of business or science?” To do that, they break rules.

*Two-thirds of the roughly $58 billion spent each year on research in universities is financed by the federal, state, and local governments, 59% by the US government alone.

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