Rigor Mortis: Wasted Billions On Sloppy Science

  • Date: 06/06/17
  • Anjana Ahuja, Financial Times

A new book estimates that maybe half of the $30bn spent by US taxpayers on biomedical science goes on work that turns out to be wrong.

Rigor Mortis by Richard Harris — sloppy science

We live in a world with an awful lot of corners, the science writer Richard Harris wryly observes. We are told that cures for diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s lurk just around them. Mostly, it turns out that the wall is endless — or that the corner is not a corner at all but a spiral of wasted dreams coiled around shoddy science.

His thesis, set out starkly in Rigor Mortis, is that there is something seriously wrong with the way biomedical scientists go about their business. I started this book bristling at the schlocky subtitle: “How sloppy science creates worthless cures, crushes hope, and wastes billions”. By the time I had finished, I felt it was somewhat justified.

He estimates that maybe half of the $30bn spent by US taxpayers on biomedical science — research that underpins treatments and cures — goes on work that turns out to be wrong. It takes an extreme optimist to wave away such wastage as the normal run of scientific trial and error.

Harris, an award-winning reporter for National Public Radio, captures an angst that is rife in biomedicine: if the goal of research is to deepen knowledge, then it is structured in exactly the wrong way. Grants and publications are awarded on the basis of novelty, with academics plunged into a “publish or perish” culture. This fosters an ultra-competitive “publish first, correct later” spirit, which militates against the collaborative milieu in which truly great insights are so often born. And since everyone is busy moving on to the next big thing — and anxious not to be embarrassed in front of their peers — errors tend to languish and pervert the record indefinitely. As Harris notes, “it’s important to distinguish between speed and haste”.

This sense of competitiveness also disadvantages academics who share methods and data with rivals. Data-sharing is essential for ensuring studies are reproducible but it is equivalent to assisting the enemy. Many studies cannot, in fact, be replicated, a phenomenon known as the “reproducibility crisis”.

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