An award-winning science journalist reports that research in the biomedical sciences is too often guilty of wasting time and money and, worse than that, actually slowing scientific progress and misinforming the public.
Harris, who has been reporting on science for NPR for 30 years, talked with dozens of scientists in preparing this report on the lack of rigor in biomedical science. Among his sources are C. Glenn Begley, whose study of experiments in cancer research revealed that barely 1 in 10 was reproducible, and John Ioannidis, whose paper, “Why Most Published Scientific Research Findings Are False,” exposed problems caused by poor study design and analysis. Harris considers specific problems such as the failure to run proper controls, contamination of cell lines, bad antibodies, untrustworthy biomarkers, and small sample sizes; more importantly, he looks at the entire culture of biomedicine and finds it in serious need of repair. With numerous personality-rich examples and anecdotes, he describes what amounts to a rat race. The changes required are vast: the enormous pressure on researchers to obtain grants and publish, the emphasis that hiring universities place on the quantity rather than the quality of publications, the selection and review practices of science journals—he cites several high-impact ones, such as Cell, Nature, and Science—the reluctance of researchers to share data, their lack of a firm grounding in statistics, and their tendencies to select easy projects, cut corners, get results out fast, and hype results. In the final chapter, Harris examines the progress that is being made in fixing the system. One development is the increasing use of social media, which is enabling scientists to communicate more smoothly and blog about each other’s research.
The author’s easy-reading but hard-hitting exposé of a dysfunctional biomedical research system will inform and alarm general readers, and it is sure to stir controversy and arouse ire among those who feel their ox is being gored.