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Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws

8269371845_e85476ca50_bCompetition in pursuit of experimental objectives has always been a part of the scientific enterprise, and it can have positive effects. However, hypercompetition for the resources and positions that are required to conduct science suppresses the creativity, cooperation, risk-taking, and original thinking required to make fundamental discoveries.

Now that the percentage of NIH grant applications that can be funded has fallen from around 30% into the low teens, biomedical scientists are spending far too much of their time writing and revising grant applications and far too little thinking about science and conducting experiments. The low success rates have induced conservative, short-term thinking in applicants, reviewers, and funders. The system now favors those who can guarantee results rather than those with potentially path-breaking ideas that, by definition, cannot promise success. Young investigators are discouraged from departing too far from their postdoctoral work, when they should instead be posing new questions and inventing new approaches. Seasoned investigators are inclined to stick to their tried-and-true formulas for success rather than explore new fields.

One manifestation of this shift to short-term thinking is the inflated value that is now accorded to studies that claim a close link to medical practice. Human biology has always been a central part of the US biomedical effort. However, only recently has the term “translational research” been widely, if unofficially, used as a criterion for evaluation. Overvaluing translational research is detracting from an equivalent appreciation of fundamental research of broad applicability, without obvious connections to medicine. Many surprising discoveries, powerful research tools, and important medical benefits have arisen from efforts to decipher complex biological phenomena in model organisms. In a climate that discourages such work by emphasizing short-term goals, scientific progress will inevitably be slowed, and revolutionary findings will be deferred.

Traditional standards for the practice of science are also threatened in this environment. Publishing scientific reports, especially in the most prestigious journals, has become increasingly difficult, as competition increases and reviewers and editors demand more and more from each paper. Long appendixes that contain the bulk of the experimental results have become the norm for many journals and accepted practice for most scientists. As competition for jobs and promotions increases, the inflated value given to publishing in a small number of so-called “high impact” journals has put pressure on authors to rush into print, cut corners, exaggerate their findings, and overstate the significance of their work. Such publication practices, abetted by the hypercompetitive grant system and job market, are changing the atmosphere in many laboratories in disturbing ways. The recent worrisome reports of substantial numbers of research publications whose results cannot be replicated are likely symptoms of today’s highly pressured environment for research. If through sloppiness, error, or exaggeration, the scientific community loses the public’s trust in the integrity of its work, it cannot expect to maintain public support for science.

Click here to read the full text of this March 7, 2014 PNAS article by Bruce Alberts et al.

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