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.


MMR: our children, our choice? – Panorama

January 23, 2008

In 2002, the BBC’s Panorama series included an edition entitled MMR: Every Parent’s Choice which investigated the origins of the controversy over measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination in the UK. In particular, the programme focussed on the role of Dr Andrew Wakefield and his, now refuted, claims concerning the link between the use of ‘triple-jab’ MMR vaccine and childhood autism and bowel disease. Although the public controversy surrounding this vaccination has now largely been settled, MMR uptake still remains below the level required to ensure population (or ‘herd’) immunity (see MMR uptake still short of target, BBC News, September 28th 2007 or watch video Warning over low MMR uptake, BBC News). The 2006-07 NHS immunisation statistics in England for example report it to be 85% by the age of two (NHS Immunisation Statistics, England, 2006-07), a figure which highlights that even today, 10 years after the controversy first ignited, immunisation rates have not yet returned to their previous levels of over 90% (NHS Immunisation Statistics, England, 1997-8).

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MMR controversy makes the Telegraph headlines on February 27th 1998 (from Panorama, BBC2, February 3rd 2002, 22.15)

The MMR controversy also remains a particularly rich source of material for discussing the ethical issues implicit in mass vaccination programmes. The MMR: Every Parent’s Choice episode of Panorama is a good example of this as it explicitly explores key issues, including:

  • the tension between the rights of individual parents to choose whether or not to have their children vaccinated and the aims and objectives of state endorsed vaccination policy
  • the factors influencing parents decision-making about vaccination, and variable influence of health professionals, the media, and science in shaping these
  • the proper role for doctors as both scientific and social actors

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