Science Betrayed: Reflections on research misconduct

April 4, 2011

Dr Adam Rutherford looks into misconduct in scientific research

A pair of 30 minute documentaries Science Betrayed have recently aired on Radio 4 (UK). In these programmes, Dr Adam Rutherford, Nature journalist and science interpreter for the broader public, investigates the murky world of scientific misconduct.

In the first episode, Rutherford looks at some historical and recent examples of misconduct ranging from the Piltdown Man hoax through to the case of South Korean stem cell scientist Hwang Woo-Suk. He and his interviewees reflect on some of the pressures that lead researchers to fabricate data.

The second episode focuses more specifically on the case of Andrew Wakefield and the alleged link between MMR and autism. The programme includes an interview with Wakefield himself as well as investigative journalist Brian Deer who was pivotal in uncovering evidence of malpractice.

The episodes can both be accessed via the BBC website. At the time of writing the BBC iPlayer gives no mention of expiry date so I am hopeful these are resources that will be directly available for some while. It appears that there is also an abbreviated version (18 mins) of episode 1 (and presumably episode 2, once broadcast) on the Discovery site where it is actually downloadable as an mp3 podcast – thanks to Joe (comments, below) for this tip-off.


Human Genome Project: 10 years on

July 1, 2010

The tenth anniversary of the announcement that the human genome had been  ‘completely’ sequenced, has led to a large number of programmes and publications reflecting upon the impact that this information is having upon biomedicine. On 24th June, Today, the flagship current affairs programme on UK Radio 4, included a very interesting interview with John Sulston and Francis Collins the men who, respectively, had headed up the UK and USA ends of the publicly-funded consortia. The interview (7 minutes) can be heard via this link, and a transcript can be found here.


BBC Radio 4 – Cancer Tales

February 4, 2009
Listen again to Cancer Tales via the BBC iPlayer (available until Monday 2nd February 2009)

Listen again to Cancer Tales via the BBC iPlayer (available until Monday 2nd February 2009)

On Monday 26th January 2009 BBC Radio 4 broadcast Cancer Tales as the Afternoon Play (aired at 2.15pm). This interesting and emotional radio adaptation was based on the play of the same name written by Nell Dunn (first published in the UK in 2002 by Amber Lane Press) which provides fictional accounts of experiences of cancer diagnosis and treatment. The accounts are very emotional and moving, and include the perspectives of the patients themselves, their family members and, occasionally, members of their clinical care teams. Dunn’s narratives are based upon the real-life experiences of cancer patients and offer a true-to-life snapshot of their experience of cancer diagnosis and treatment. Thus, Cancer Tales provides an opportunity to see many aspects of medical care and services from the patients perspective. This is particularly the case with the recent Radio 4 adaptation, which, within it 45minute running time, focusses on three of the narratives contained in the original script. These are all female experiences and explicitly dealt with experiences of clinical services (as opposed to wider social and psychological themes connected to cancer diagnosis). Read the rest of this entry »


BBC Radio 4 Today programme – Ethical issues in prenatal diagnosis and screening

January 22, 2009
Listen again via the BBC Radio 4's Today programme archive

Listen again via the BBC Radio 4's Today programme archive

This brief post concerns a short section of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, broadcast on January 7th 2009. The clip itself is approximately 4.5 minutes long and features interviews with Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, of the Autism Research Centre, and Joy Delhanty, professor of human genetics at University College London, who prospectively discuss the ethical issues involved in prenatal testing for autism. It was broadcast alongside the corresponding edition of the BBC News’ weekly column Scrubbing Up, in which leading clinicians and experts give their perspectives on various issues in health and bioethics.

Read the rest of this entry »


More tricky decisions – Inside the ethics committee

August 12, 2008
Visit the Inside the Ethics Committee homepage at BBC Radio 4

Visit the Inside the Ethics Committee homepage at BBC Radio 4

The fourth series of BBC Radio 4’s bioethics programme Inside the Ethics Committee began on August 6 2008, and discussed some of the ethical issues involved in the creation of ‘saviour siblings’ (first broadcast on BBC Radio 4, at 20.00, August 6 2008 and repeated on August 9 2008, at 22.15). Vivienne Parry and a panel of experts discuss the ethical issues around real-life medical cases, on this occasion the dilemma involves a young child, Catherine, and her medical treatment. Previous BioethicsBytes posts have noted the utility of this series (see the post Making tricky decisions – Inside the ethics committee), and this episode is no different.

Shortly after she was born Catherine was diagnosed with Diamond Blackfan Anaemia (DBA). DBA is a rare blood disorder caused by a genetic mutation. In general, its treatment is “gruelling” (00:02:27) and the prognosis is poor. As in several previous cases (notably, the Whitaker, Fletcher and Mariethoz families), Catherine’s parents were offered the option of using preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) for tissue typing alone in order to create a ‘saviour sibling’ whose umbilical cord blood could be used to treat Catherine’s DBA.

Many of the ethical issues involved in this choice have been dealt with in past BioethicsBytes posts (see The Future of Our Families? and the extended commentary that accompanies that post), however this edition of Inside the Ethics Committee brings consideration of these issues up to date. Though the majority of the ethical issues raised are covered in our existing posts, some of the additional details noted here about DBA and the testing procedure introduce new complications into the ethical debate.

Read the rest of this entry »


Bird flu and uncertainty – deciding what makes the news

July 22, 2008

For a number of years in the 1990s, but sadly not in the recent past, the BBC had an annual review of the year programme called Decisive Moments,  in which key events from the preceding twelve months were illustrated via reference to still photos. I was always fascinated by the stories behind those images, how they came to be taken from the vantage point that they were, why that frame rather than, say, the next one taken, and so on.

When I finally got around to listening to a recording of the Radio 4 programme Inside Stories, I was captivated with the same fascination. In the series, Guardian journalist Steve Hewlett discusses with colleagues how and why the media choose to cover particular news stories and the angle that they take on them.  In an episode on bird flu, first broadcast on February 5th 2008, Hewlett talks with Charles Clover (Environment editor at the Daily Telegraph), Sarah Mukherjee (BBC Environment correspondent), Simon Pearson (Times) and Michael Pollitt (Eastern Daily Press) and traces the unfolding history of UK coverage of bird flu from the 1997 outbreak of H5N1 in Hong Kong poultry, through to the infection at Bernard Matthews’ Norfolk turkey farm in 2007. They consider the conflagrations that occurred, with SARS, H5N1 and the overdue flu pandemic all rolling into one in the mind of the public, and how the over-the-top reporting of a dead swan in Cellardyke, Scotland and the mis-handling of the Bernard Matthews story may actually have brought us to a point where people are better able to distinguish truth from hyperbole. Throughout, the underlying issue is really one of how the media copes with uncertainty.

Sadly, no online recording of the programme is available, but a transcript of the programme can be read here. BUFVC member can obtain a copy via the back-up service, quoting TRILT ID 007CFCC7.


Making tricky decisions – Inside the ethics committee

October 5, 2007

If you were on the ethics committee that had to decide whether or not an anorexic woman can refuse further treatment for her condition and admit herself instead into a palliative care hospital to await death – how would you decide what to allow?  This is just one of the scenarios discussed in the third series of the Radio 4 series Inside the ethics committee. The programme has an interesting format – all the cases considered are real, and the panel of experts are all members of a clinical ethics committee, usually at a different UK hospital. Host Vivienne Parry interrogates them about the advice they would have given on the specific case and the reasons underlying that view.  Finally, the real decision made by the ethics committee is revealed.

The three series to date have covered some interesting ground.

Series 1 (2005) looked at:
treating a Jehovah’s witness with leukaemia who will need blood-products or an expensive alternative
whether a baby should be given a liver transplant which will be damaged by the treatment they are getting and will therefore only be a temporary solution, when several other patients could have the organ instead
deciding what to do for a patient with a chronic lung condition who gave inconsistent views about whether or not he wants life-saving treatment

Series 2 (2006) covered:
whether it is right to test children for an inheritable cancer now that their father has developed the condition
ethical decisions that would need to be made in the face of a pandemic flu outbreak
how to decide whether or not someone gets an expensive medicine on the NHS

Series 3 (2007) was perhaps the most engaging to date. Topics considered this year were:
deciding how to treat a man who has learning difficulties, no speech and no relatives but needs chemotherapy
can a woman with Anorexia Nervosa be offered palliative care?
can an unconscious man be tested for HIV without his consent?

In the most recent of these cases, for example, a man caught in the London bombings of July 2005 had been very badly injured, including exposure to blood and tissue from other victims.  Unconscious in hospital, a doctor treating him accidentally pricks herself with a used needle.  She starts a programme of prophylactic medicine, which would normally continue until it was known whether the original patient was HIV positive and may have infected her.  In this case, the man cannot be asked for permission for him to be tested.  With the healthcare worker now effectively a second patient, how do you resolve the apparent clash of rights and needs for the two individuals?

Inevitably for programmes of this kind, the cases are specifically selected because the decisions are not straightforward – it doesn’t make for good radio if your panelists are always agreeing!  Given the complexity of the cases involved, I suspect that the use in teaching would be limited to University level, and even then it is more suited to philosophy courses or medicine than for bioscientists.  It’s not easy to pick out short soundbites, and I would recommend listening to the full 45 minute episodes in each case.

At the time of writing, all nine episodes are available as streamed files on the BBC website (although the links didn’t always seem to work on all the computers I tried). In addition to the recording, there is also a transcript of each discussion, which can be very helpful in following the arguments being made. Alternatively, audio recordings can be obtained from the BUFVC.