It’s the grants, stupid

For the headline, I apologise to Jeremy Paxman and George Herbert Bush. But not to scientists. As far as I can see, the scientific world is bedevilled by grant-whores and headline seekers. I’ve been having this argument for nearly 20 years and never found anyone to agree with me. My oldest friend told me three years ago that I clearly had no idea how science and scientists worked.

It turns out that I had a very clear idea. The British Medical Journal has turned into a veritable house scorpion, uncovering fraud, plagiarism and outright falsehood that threaten to destroy any residual faith we might have in the scientific community. I’m going to come back to that.

Where did my own scepticism come from? First thing I noticed was, from one year to the next, there would be contradictory headlines about what we should and shouldn’t eat; cures for all sorts of ills; then how the cures were killing us; and, most disturbingly, predictions for the future. These headlines weren’t faked or tricked up by journalists; they were fed to the media on a platter, by scientists.

About 35 years ago, the Sunday Times published, on its back page (in the days when it had an editorial back page) a very detailed map and study of how we were heading for a new ice age. Back then, I was still in thrall to science and believed every word. (If you don’t believe me, see the illustration above, one of many stories about a new ice age that appeared in the mid-70s onwards).

But about 10 years later, in the exact same spot in the same newspaper, there was a very detailed map and study of how England was going to become the new Mediterranean. Hang on, I thought. Both these things can’t be right. Someone’s wrong or someone’s lying. By that time I had already become sceptical, but now I started to develop my theory that scientists, needing grants from year to year, were perfectly capable of dissembling, or simply presenting a half story that would ensure, when they came back for next year’s money, that the research would have moved on to provide a completely different headline, sorry, result.

Science, it turns out, is often the problem, and not always the answer. Would you, for instance, in the face of some massive oil spill, be content to let nature take its course and heal itself? Probably not. We’re not comfortable letting things be, but the cleanup frequently does more lasting damage than the oil it is meant to clean up. After one such incident, some far-sighted clique managed to persuade the company responsible, and clamouring environmentalists, to leave a one-mile stretch of coast alone. This stretch of coast not only cleaned itself up far quicker, but the long-term environmental effects were drastically reduced. (You can read more about this sort of thing here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3024133/ and many more places online).

Have you seen Woody Allen’s film, Sleeper? It’s from his classic ‘Funny’ period (akin to Picasso’s ‘Blue’ period, but with better jokes). Allen is cryogenically frozen and defrosted 200 years later, when he discovers that chocolate and steak are the prescribed health foods du jour. How prescient was that? After years telling us to stop eating chocolate and steak, scientists changed their minds – and it didn’t take them 200 years. It didn’t even take them 20 years.

I recently leapt on a front-page tabloid headline which promised “a cure for arthritis”. It wasn’t till the last paragraph of the story, which appeared on page 2, that we were told this cure was probably 20 years away. Now, do we blame the newspaper? Probably, yes, a little bit. But what about the scientists who know that their cure is two decades away, but are still willing to sell a bit of their soul and a lot of their integrity, for a Daily Express headline. (And, before you expire with shock, no, I didn’t buy the Daily Express. What do you take me for?).

Scientific research used to be a discreet (not to mention discrete) and exacting task. Today a significant part of the scientific community consists of grant-whoring, headline-seeking scarifiers who want us to believe one day that we are about to be consumed by a flesh-eating bug, the next that bird flu will see whole populations decimated.

As a survivor of the 1957 Asian flu pandemic of 1957 (http://www.globalsecurity.org/security/ops/hsc-scen-3_pandemic-1957.htm), when two million people died worldwide, excuse me for being a trifle unbelieving about every predicted disaster. I was eight-years-old and my nose wouldn’t stop bleeding (people were bleeding from every orifice). Nobody made a fuss, nobody panicked. I was taken to hospital where the veins in my nose were cauterised (imagine, if you will, the smell of your own flesh burning). In retrospect, you have to wonder what that was going to do to cure the flu, but you fight one battle at a time, I suppose. At least I wasn’t going to bleed to death.

The point is, no public health official, no government science officer, and no opportunistic scientific research facility, were presenting themselves to the media and whipping up a shitstorm of panic. Very correctly, the scientific and medical communities got on with the job of treating cases and compiling data that would inform future generations.

I imagine Dr Fiona Godlee would like to see a return to those halcyon days of integrity and common sense. I don’t want to put words in her mouth, but as editor-in-chief of the British Medical Journal for the past 10 years, instead of treating her job as a public relations exercise, or simply reporting the comings and goings of her community, she has put the boot in, uncovering all sorts of skulduggery and specifically referring to surveys where 14% of respondents (she calls this a “conservative” estimate) acknowledge fakery by colleagues.

Reporting on this, The Sunday Times refers to “ethical misconduct, which is driven by the need to generate research funding”. Well, I never. Few things I like better than being right, even two decades down the line. (Although I do also enjoy a decent tub of vanilla ice cream).

One comment

  1. It’s pretty clear that the there are problems, crappy journals, badly designed research… indeed bad science. However in the defence of scientists it seems worth pointing out that at least part of the problem is the way that science is reported. Journalists often wilfully ignore the detail of the study for the sake of a good headline. And of course one study does not consensus make. As far as scientists prostituting themselves for money then I guess as research funding is reduced they will find themselves with little choice. And with a potential Brexit that’ll only get worse. The Commission is big source of research income. In that case expect more obesity research sponsored by Coca Cola… and climate science by Exxon.


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