Author: Ahsan Choudary | Category: Beyond The Bench | April 04, 2016
Ahsan Choudary is a
graduate fellow in the Translational Science Ph.D. program and conducts cardiovascular
disease research in the lab of Laura Cox, Ph.D. at the Texas Biomedical
Research Institute. He also co-founded the student and post-doc-led consulting
group, Commercialization Catalysts. He works with the Office of Technology
Commercialization to accelerate benchtop discoveries to clinical care through facilitation
of research and development of cutting edge university technologies.
Discoveries in health and medicine have the power to
directly impact our life or the life of a loved one. Consequently, there is the
possibility that biotech entrepreneurs or scientists could pull at heartstrings
and oversell a discovery in the hopes of gathering capital or gaining funding.
Elizabeth Holmes, the CEO of Theranos, was last year’s
impressive example of the burgeoning biotech industry: youthful business acumen
combined with exuberant scientific progress.
Theranos was able to raise over $750 million in investor
funds, with the charismatic Holmes at the helm of a $9 billion dollar ship, for
proprietary technology that
claimed to quickly process a full panel of lab tests from an astoundingly small
amount of blood at a fraction of the cost of a regular workup.
In spite of the promising advance in technology, Holmes was
placed in the hot seat after a series of investigative reports by the Pulitzer
Prize-winning journalist John Carreyrou (see here
Carreyrou pierced the hype surrounding the upstart company, investigated the
claims, and discovered that the technological promises simply did not add up.
The Theranos example leads us to as the question, “What should
the public to believe?”
At worst, the new technology promised by Theranos is an
outright lie. At best, it may be a highly ambitious and daring idea that
exists in a world where we do not yet have the technological wizardry to
However we choose to interpret the actions surrounding these
events, the unfolding drama calls to attention important issues relevant to all
biomedical researchers, including communication of science, transparency and
reproducibility of scientific research, and the credibility of science.
Ineffective communication, lack of transparency and reproducibility
of research, and outright lies are not new to science. Hwang
cell cloning controversy and Haruko
Obokata’s false claims about the creation of a novel
technique to produce pluripotent cells demonstrate that bad
science happens more than we may realize.
Further, once bad science makes its way
into the public consciousness, it never really goes away. As evidence, we can
point to Wakefield’s
anomalous study linking autism to childhood vaccinations, which has had a
mind-melding hold on a sizable segment of the public.
In spite of complete discrediting and
retraction, the published lies still run rampant in the minds of many who
extol the dangers of and, thereby, create serious public health
The foundations of scientific research are based upon the
unbiased, logical, rational search for truth, while pseudo-science and misinformation
relies upon emotions in order to propagate. Unfortunately, false ideas based on
emotions, such as hope or fear, are powerful and can often trump the true. Consequently,
once emotionally-based ideas spread, they are difficult to overcome.
In fact, scientific findings that are presented
incorrectly can develop a life of their own. Last summer, researchers in New York claimed that they found evidence
(amended study here)
of the bubonic plague and anthrax in the city’s subway systems, causing the
citizens of NYC to succumb to panic and fear.
Watch stated that the conclusions were false and that the scientists
analyzed the incorrect region of DNA. While the researchers did later
acknowledge that these findings were no
cause for alarm, the damage from miscommunication was already done and, for
a while. But once the media got wind of the story, it was too late and the damage was already done.
Miscommunication, lack of transparency, and downright
lies can severely damage scientists’ public credibility and tank potential
Going back to the Theranos drama, it is clear that the
company has suffered
for its exaggerations and shortcomings.
The company’s investors guzzled the
Kool Aid and backed the company with hundreds of millions of dollars for a
little proven technology, possibly due to the winner’s
curse phenomenon and the fact that investments in risky biotech
propositions can often be emotionally-based rather than fact-based.
It may be easy to exonerate ourselves
from ever toeing the line the way Elizabeth Holmes did, but where exactly does
the promotion of ideas cross the line to exaggeration? Where does that exaggeration
transform into miscommunication? And where is the line that one then crosses
into outright lies? It’s not always so cut and dry or easy to demarcate.
Especially when scientists are motivated
by fame and worldwide acknowledgement or a big monetary payoff.
Given these issues, what are we scientists to do?
Research by the Pew
Research Center has shown that while the American public still holds a
favorable view of scientists and science research, the last five years have
seen a slow but steady rise in negative views.
I believe that as a scientist, we must be held accountable. Whether the issue is transparency and reproducibility of scientific data, communication of science
to the public, or development of effective public health policy, honesty and integrity must be
central tenets of any scientist’s creed.
Doing anything less could compromise
research funding, as evidenced by Senator Tom Coburn’s scathing 2011 report
that, “a significant percentage of your money is going to what most Americans
will consider fraud, waste and abuse… Taxpayers may also question the value of
many of the projects [The National Science Foundation] actually chose to fund.”
the UT Health Science Center has monthly workshops called the “Spotlight on
Research Integrity” to remind us how to maintain research integrity as a core
Second, we scientists must learn to communicate our
message in a way that is interesting, applicable, and clear to the public.
To demonstrate the importance of this issue, a recent
survey by the Pew Research Center of members of the American Association
for the Advancement of Science showed that 84 percent of those polled believe
that the public’s limited knowledge of science was a major problem for their
indicated that 30 percent of scientists reported that they rarely or never speak to reporters and only 10 percent reported
that wrote science for public consumption themselves. See the discrepancy? We
must clearly speak for ourselves before someone else
speaks for us.
Finally, our responsibility as scientists is far beyond
simply conducting research, soliciting funding, and publishing results.
Part of our work is to ensure that our findings are
properly crafted into a public-friendly message, properly presented as a continuous
dialogue with the public, and properly heard by our target audience.
cannot demonstrate the importance of our findings to non-scientists, how else
are we to garner further support and public trust?
If we fail to make our voices public, consequences may
include misunderstandings with the public that can lead to undue public health
harm, further mistrust, and promotion of misguided
health care policy.
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