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Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Communication is the essence of science

And I thought working in industry was bad.

U nlike in politics, in science it's considered bad form to criticize a colleague by name. Partly it's because you never really know all the facts. And partly it's because when your critique is in print the other person doesn't have a chance to defend themselves. In fact, since most scientific papers only get read a tiny handful of times, they might never see the criticism at all.

So I'm not going to criticize anyone by name here. But since I returned to academia I've noticed an unmistakable trend of pressuring academic scientists to skip controls and do their experiments faster. Universities and nonprofits are putting the squeeze on scientists to bring in more grants and publish more papers. There are many reasons, some more obvious than others, why this is harmful.

A few years ago, a famous scientist in the intramural program of NIH got in trouble because one of his postdocs was accused of fabricating results. I ran across a series of those papers while writing a grant, all of which looked exciting, but I couldn't cite them because they'd all been retracted.

Davros, the mad scientist from BBC's Doctor Who
Oh no, I forgot to do the controls!

These days, a postdoc is under enormous pressure to publish—a lot—in order to survive. Faculty positions in science are rare; even postdoc positions are now hard to get. Outstanding postdocs sometimes work for ten or fifteen years before finally dropping out of science.

I know two postdocs who lost their positions this way. They were not dummies: one became a vice president at Pfizer. The other is now a senior advisor in some commission to the President.

What happened to that NIH researcher? Even after 19 retractions, he's still publishing. The question is, how can this (and by ‘this’ I mean bad results, not publishing) be prevented?

There's an immense pressure to publish. I suspect that some people just publish their results and say “we got what we got” because the university doesn't give them enough time to check their result. You get the papers and grants, or you're out.

One time, a former colleague convinced some investor that one of my projects was ready for commercialization. All that's needed, he told him, was a quickie test as a “proof of principle.“ The university saw dollar signs and immediately demanded that the funding go to them. Because of the school's immense, corrupt bureaucracy, the critical reagent didn't arrive until three days before the experiment was to start. My job was to make some radioactive particles, which therefore meant working frantically over the weekend.

Well, sadly, no one ever asked me whether doing this quickie experiment was worthwhile. I'm sure the word “idiotic,” possibly modified by some Anglo-Saxon term, would have escaped my lips; if it was that easy, I would have done it fifteen years ago. But the biggest problem was communication, or the absence thereof.

The investor had been told by a clinical group that they'd pay big bucks for some way to get their drug across the blood-brain barrier, or BBB. The BBB is a layer of cells between the blood vessels and the brain cells. Its job is to prevent toxins from harming the neurons, but it also prevents many potentially useful drugs from getting into the brain.

The guy, having no scientific background, took this to mean that the BBB is an all or nothing deal: something either crosses it or it doesn't. Sadly, that's not the case. In basic science, getting a five-fold increase in transport into the brain is a big deal. To a clinician, the only thing that counts is whether it exceeds the clinically effective concentration. The difference between these two levels is often a thousand-fold or more.

It's a classic problem of conflicting definitions. These miscommunications can be corrected if they're spotted, but too often these days, the word comes down from above: we want the money. We don't care about details. So you do what we say, now, or else. Stop telling us the experiment can't work and needs six months of testing.

After being insulted and browbeaten for being “negative” a bunch of times, I stopped trying to warn them. The experiment failed and the investor lost tens of thousands of dollars. I think he got off cheap—they were talking about going to a foreign country and giving this thing to live patients. I still shudder to think of the consequences. Not just for the patients, mind you. I shudder because I know exactly who would have gotten blamed.

jul 25 2018, 6:08 am; edited jul 30 2018, 7:18 pm

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