October 27, 2014
How To Fix Science
By Michael D. Shaw
Around a year ago, this column ran a piece entitled “Whatever Happened To Science?” As Baby Boomers will recall, during our early youth, our little heads were crammed full of the promise of Science: Abundant cheap electrical power; the discovery of the structure of DNA would (somehow) lead to curing every disease, and the polio vaccine seemed to demonstrate this; our soaring postwar economy could easily fund ever more dramatic breakthroughs.
But then, as the 1960s dawned, reality set in. An extraordinary number of people were dying of heart disease, and good old Watson & Crick (or Salk & Sabin) couldn’t help much with that. Besides, Science offered no cure for the social ills such as grinding poverty and institutionalized racism, now being splashed across the TV screen. Of course, Science did bring us frightful weapon systems, nuclear waste, and napalm.
Meanwhile, greed in academia—hardly a new phenomenon—would rise to fever pitch in the wake of LBJ’s Great Society lavish spending on just about everything, including federal research dollars. With a so-called research university ensconced in many Congressional districts, no self-respecting member could let his local institution be deprived of research grants. Thus, as detailed in Senator Tom Coburn’s Wastebook 2014, we uncover such gems as…
$387,000 going to Ohio State University to evaluate the benefits of massage therapy, via a mechanical device used on rabbits—as opposed to human patients.
$856,000 going to University of California Santa Cruz to examine high-energy activities of mountain lions. A principal effort was teaching the big cats how to run on a treadmill.
$331,000 going to Ohio State University and University of North Carolina Wilmington to study the psychological notion of being “hangry”—combining hunger with anger. Aggressive feelings were “measured” by recording how many pins were stuck into the participants’ voodoo dolls.
$371,026 going to Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts General Hospital, to study the reactions of women to pictures of children versus pictures of dogs. While this sort of work had been done before, this study was the first to employ functional magnetic resonance imaging. Supposedly, this funding was intended for addiction research.
Rest assured that these examples do not even begin to scratch the surface. Indeed, there are any number of studies that would appear to be legitimate endeavors—until you examine the methods and conclusions drawn in the final report.
OK, but how to fix this? One way is to slow down the flood of research money, and in the health field the best approach would be to bid adieu to current director of the NIH, Francis Collins, MD PhD. Collins is just the type of over-educated, resume-polishing political hack that exemplifies everything wrong with NIH—not to mention the entire Federal government. Willfully blind to the truly sinful waste of money in research, “skilled administrator and excellent communicator” Collins was quoted a few months ago in USA Today: “We are throwing away probably half of the innovative, talented research proposals that the nation’s finest biomedical community has produced.”
Given what does get approved, one wonders what sort of garbage gets thrown away!
The processes of grant proposal review at the outset, and peer review for publication of results are also in need of urgent reform. Consider that the only functional impediment to the approval of a grant request is availability of funds. In most cases, there really is no “smell test” that must be passed. Instead of the agencies approving the grants, the task should fall to an anonymous committee—much akin to the model used by the Motion Picture Association of America to rate movies. The identities of the reviewers are kept secret, for good reason, and there is a formal appeal process.
As to peer review, editorial boards of publications need not be made anonymous, but rational quality guidelines must be introduced. Key among these would be a provision that effectively bans the sort of ridiculous data mining that is the current rage. With the universal availability of statistical software, “researchers” are able to input hundreds of parameters—often using data obtained by others—in an attempt to discern some sort of correlation between any grouping of them. Such efforts are nothing less than a cynical perversion of the scientific method, and nothing more than a welfare program for academic scientists, and their affiliated universities.
Finally, all politics must be removed from Science. You’d think we would have learned from the damage wrought by Hitler, Lenin, and Stalin in this regard. The use of dubious environmental science to justify ever more government control of our lives, the euthanasia trial balloons being launched by health care ghoul Ezekiel Emanuel, and the appointment of political operative/Solyndra mastermind/population control enthusiast Ron Klain as our Ebola czar are but three contemporary examples.