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How Competing For Grants Kills Science – and Scientists’ Motivation

By Shlomo   Maital  

Science lab

   This is the sad story about how a shortage of resources, and the system of competitive funding of research grants through peer-review, is ruining U.S. science and killing scientists’ motivation.   I heard it today on America’s National Public Radio News, in a report by Richard Harris.

   Ian Glomski thought he was going to make a difference in the fight to protect people from deadly anthrax germs. He had done everything right – attended one top university, landed an assistant professorship at another.  But Glomski ran head-on into an unpleasant reality: These days, the scramble for money to conduct research has become stultifying.  So, he’s giving up on science.  Ian Glomski outside his home in Charlottesville, Va. He quit an academic career in microbiology to start a liquor distillery.

Why is he giving up????  

Because to get grants, you need to ‘tweak’ safe existing ideas, so your peers will approve it; because if you have radical ideas, your peers who judge the grants competition will shoot them down, because if you succeed, those ideas will endanger the judges’ own safe, conventional, non-risky research.

“You’re focusing basically on one idea you already have and making it as presentable as possible,” he says. “You’re not spending time making new ideas. And it’s making new ideas, for me personally, that I found rewarding. That’s what my passion was about.”

    Glomski wanted to study anthrax ‘in vitro’, in live animals, using scanning techniques.  Today it’s done by analyzing tissues of dead animals. His idea might have failed. But if it succeeded, it could have utterly changed our understanding of anthrax and other such diseases. 

    In theory, peer-review of grants is fair.  But it fosters extreme mediocrity.  And as government funding of research declines, (20% cut in recent years),   competition gets fierce (1 of 8 grant proposals is successful, and it takes long stretches of time to prepare one – so young scientists spend their time writing proposals rather than doing effective research). 

    Harris reports that “…. payoffs in science come from out of the blue – oddball ideas or unexpected byways. Glomski says that’s what research was like for him as he was getting his Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley. His lab leader there got funding to probe the frontiers. But Glomski sees that far-sighted approach disappearing today.”   Playing it safe will never generate the creative breakthroughs we need.

     As with many things in America, scientific research is utterly screwed up.  And it is unlike to change in the near future. 

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$1.3 b. to develop a new drug? It’s a myth!

By Shlomo  Maital

Pharma   

 Some numbers, with no basis in fact, become truth simply through repetition. Take, for instance, this one:  It costs $1.3 b. to develop a new drug.  We all know that, right?  That’s why medicine is so expensive. 

  Wrong.  Here is how two eminent doctors (1)  debunk that number.  And at the same time, prove that “pharmaceutical companies are price-gouging”, with the biggest 11 pharma firms piling up ever-rising net income – nearly $85 b. in 2012.

   * Half the $1.3 b. is the opportunity cost of capital invested in developing drugs.  An inflated unrealistically high rate of return is used.  Right now, the risk-free rate of return on bonds is about 1 per cent.  So – knock off fully half of that $1.3 b.   We’re at $650 m.

*  Taxpayers finance pharma’s research costs, through tax credits and deductions.  This brings the $650 m. cost down to $325 m.

* That $1.3 b. is based on the most costly one-fifth of new drugs,  NOT the average of all drugs.  Correcting this brings the cost down to $230 m.

* A few expensive drugs inflate the average.  So it’s best to use the median, not the average.  The median:  the point at which half of the research projects cost more, and half less.  This brings company research costs down to $170 m.

*  Pharma inflates the cost of basic research underlying the new drugs.  The net median corporate research cost comes down to just $125 m., when the figure is adjusted for more realistic basic research costs.  Pharma invests only 1.3 per cent of revenues in basic research; the rest goes to developing new drugs with very little advantage over existing ones, just to inflate profits.

    For cancer drugs, most of the cost of clinical trials are paid for by the U.S. National Cancer Institute. 

    What is worse – big pharma raises the prices on some of their older drugs by 20-25 per cent a year, and in the past decade, they have almost doubled their prices for cancer drugs.   This is a ‘market spiral pricing strategy’, at a time when most other new products, like iPhones, fall rapidly in price.

    Someone has to blow the whistle on Big Pharma.  They are ripping us off, and people are dying because they cannot afford costly medicine.  This is inexcusable.   

(1)   Cancer Rx: The $100,000 Myth.  By Donald Light and Hagop Kantarfian.  AARP Bulletin:  May 2014, p. 22.      

Can We Believe Scientific Results?

By Shlomo Maital

          Lab

  The Oct. 19 issue of The Economist has “How Science Goes Wrong” on its cover. It contains a worrisome article that leads off with a quote from Nobel Economics Laureate Daniel Kahneman: “I see a train wreck coming”.  The article deals with the very foundation of credible scientific research: The ability to replicate (repeat) scientific experiments, to verify that the results are true.   It turns out, most scientific publications cannot be replicated.  The Economist reports:

     An American drug company Amgen tried to replicate 53 studies that they considered landmarks in the basic science of cancer.  They were able to replicate the original results in just six.

   What is the problem?  Why can results be reproduced?

   Here is a rather difficult explanation, by The Economist, based on work by Stanford statistician John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist.   Suppose 1 in 10 hypotheses are true.  Consider tests of 1,000 hypotheses, of which 100 are true.  These tests have a 5% false positive rate (5 times in 100, a test says a hypothesis is true when it is false).  So of 900 false hypotheses, 5% x 900 = 45 are proved true. 

    Most tests have a statistical ‘power’ of 0.8, meaning 8 of 10 true hypotheses are proven true.  So only 80 of the 100 true hypotheses are proven true.  This means there are 20 false negatives (true hypotheses proven false). 

     Summary:  80 true hypotheses are proven true; 45 false hypotheses are also proven true.  So 45/120  false hypotheses are said to be true, fully one third. 

   Ironically:  the negative results are far more reliable. But journals hate to publish negative results (i.e. no, broccoli is NOT great for your prostate). 

      At a festive dinner here in Paris for Technion I sat next to a researcher who runs a medical research lab with a one billion euro budget.  He told me of rising pressure to attain results, and collapsing budgets.  There is huge pressure on scientists to publish results, under the threat of grant cancellation.  One of this year’s Nobel Chemistry Laureates said he got no results at all for five years, and if he were repeating this work today, he would have lost his NSF grant long ago.

     Many journalists report scientific research, especially related to food, and many of us take it seriously.  We drink more or less coffee, eat more or less broccoli, based on it.  Perhaps we should stop and just eat and drink what we like.  Why forego coffee for twenty years just to learn the original research was erroneous?

 

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
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