A sad state of “scientific” affairs

It is hard enough to keep up with the statistical charades of approaches like “evidence-based medicine.” But now we have to keep up with another problem—researchers having to retract their studies because of mistakes and outright fraud.

In fact, it appears likely that more than 50% of peer-approved published papers are fraudulent and/or meaningless.

As reported in The New York Times on April 16, 2012, one doctor became curious how far the rot extended. To find out, he teamed up with a medical journal editor. And together, they reached a troubling conclusion…

Not only were retractions rising at an alarming rate, but those retractions were just a symptom of a much more profound problem. They call it a “dysfunctional scientific climate.”

One journal editor said he feared that science had turned into a “winner-take-all” game with perverse career incentives that lead scientists to cut corners. And, in some cases, commit acts of misconduct.

We all knew that science was never free of misconduct or bad research. Indeed, one purpose of the scientific method itself is intended to overcome mistakes and misdeeds.

When scientists make a new discovery, others must review the research skeptically before it is published. And then the scientific community must try to replicate the results to see if they hold up. (This is an important rule for judging claims about dietary supplements and complementary/alternative therapies also, instead of following “media hype.”)

But critics argue that science has changed in some worrisome ways in recent decades. This problem is especially true for biomedical research, which consumes a larger and larger share of government science spending.

In October 2011, for example, the prestigious British journal Nature reported that published retractions had increased ten times over the past decade.

Scientists say this represents a “perfect storm” of several synergistic factors. One may be that because journals are now online, bad papers are simply reaching a wider audience, making it more likely that errors will be spotted. But I believe the problem goes much deeper than that…to other factors that are both more pernicious and more pervasive.

You see, to survive professionally in the modern, academic, ivory-tower mill, scientists must publish as many papers as possible. And often they cut corners—or even commit intentional misconduct—to fill those medical journals and the shelves of medical libraries.

Each year, every laboratory produces a new crop of Ph.D.s, who must compete for a smaller and smaller number of jobs—and the competition is getting fiercer. In 1973, more than half of biologists had a tenure-track job within six years of getting a Ph.D. By 2006, the figure was down to 15 percent.

And even when and if young scientists do get a job, the scramble isn’t over.

University laboratories have been subsidized for decades by a steady stream of grants from the government and other sources. But the grants are getting harder and harder to come by, because returns on investment to the taxpayer have been low lately and fiscal reality has finally begun to set in. Even the National Institutes of Health accepts a much lower percentage of grant applications today than it used to.

At the same time, many universities expect scientists to draw an increasing part of their salaries from grants. But, most of the grant money does not even go to the scientist performing the research or to the research itself. A lavish portion of the grant money goes toward “overhead.” Which essentially means it goes to the university bottom line…to pay for the rest of the academic bureaucrats who don’t or can’t actually teach or perform research themselves. This puts all the pressure on the actual scientists to become a “cash cow” for the universities. And ultimately, it’s what drives the decisions about which scientists get promoted.

So how do the universities attract successful scientists, who can garner the most grant money? Why, they spend even more money to erect a glut of costly new science buildings and equipment. Some universities have gone into tremendous debt doing so, betting that the flow of grant money will eventually pay off the loans. Creating even more pressure for their scientists to perform.

All the while…adding to the pressure…thousands of new Ph.D. scientists are coming out of countries like China and India. And a number of countries—including China, South Korea and Turkey—now offer cash rewards to scientists who get papers published.

No wonder we’ve got such a glut of research—and so few real discoveries.

They might not be finding a lot of cures but they are killing a lot of trees.