Do we need evidence-based evidence? How effective is our medical research system? What are we getting for the $30 billion that goes into university and hospital labs? Here are a couple of stories from local writers with some discouraging answers to those questions.
Carolyn Johnson’s piece on poor quality of medical research was tucked under the Globe’s Sunday editorial urging Elizabeth Warren to run for president. If only it could get as much attention:
Evidence of a quiet crisis in science is mounting. A growing chorus of researchers worry that far too many findings in the top research journals can’t be replicated. “There’s a whole groundswell of awareness that a lot of biomedical research is not as strongly predictive as you think it would be,” said Dr. Kevin Staley, an epilepsy researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital. “People eventually become aware because there’s a wake of silence after a false positive result,” he added. The same is true in every field of science, from neuroscience to stem cells.
Ideally, science builds on and corrects itself. In practice, the incentives facing scientists can hamper the process. It’s more exciting and advantageous to publish a new therapeutic approach for a disease than to revisit a past discovery. Yet unless researchers point out the limitations of one another’s work, the scientific literature can end up cluttered with results that are partially or, in some cases, not at all true.
Recently, researchers and the US government alike have sought to assess how much research is irreproducible — and why — and are looking for systematic ways to retest experiments that make headlines but yield no further progress.
Her story follows a piece by another local writer on how stem cell research has not yet delivered on its promises. Karen Weintraub’s piece was in the New York Times in September.
Stem cells broke into the public consciousness in the early 1990s, alluring for their potential to help the body beat back diseases of degeneration like Alzheimer’s, and to grow new parts to treat conditions like spinal cord injuries.
Progress has been slow. The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, an early supporter of stem cell research, pulled much of its financial backing two years ago, saying that it preferred to invest in research that was closer to providing immediate help for Parkinson’s disease patients.
But researchers have been slowly learning how to best use stem cells, what types to use and how to deliver them to the body — findings that are not singularly transformational, but progressive and pragmatic.
Finally, don’t miss this week’s Health Wonk Review, a digest of health policy blog posts.