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.

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The Dark Side of Peer Review

February 2, 2010

“Peer review” is the process in which manuscripts describing research findings are critiqued by other scientists in the relevant field to see whether the work is of sufficiently high quality to be published.  There can be little doubt that peer review can be a useful method for intercepting inferior quality data and for offering advice on the key experiment or experiments that the research team need to perform in order to substantiate their story.

For a long time, however, there have been concerns within the scientific community that the process is open to abuse by unscrupulous scientists exploiting their role as reviewers to further their own research. In recent weeks these concerns have spilled into the general press and generated alarming headlines.

First, there was the “Climategate” scandal in which leaked e-mail exchanges within the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia brought into doubt the veracity of some of the evidence for global warming. The details of the science itself are not relevant to the discussion here, and many of the original accusations against the CRU look considerably less damning in the wider context in which they were written (see, for example, the interesting video Climate change: those hacked e-mails). Nevertheless, one feature of the memos was the insinuation that peer review could be manipulated.

Added to this, we now have the spectacle of leading stem cell scientists complaining that their work has been ‘slow-tracked’ by major journals in favour of other research being carried out by rival teams (for details see the BBC report Journal stem cell work ‘blocked’ or listen to the audio Stem cell research ‘biased’ (Today programme, 2nd February 2010).

In truth, there are lots of different issues at play in this story. One is the rivalry between research teams for prestige. Coupled with this there is the rivalry for research money. As the clip from the Today programme makes clear, research funding is related to a scientists track record in publishing in major research journals, those with a high “Impact Factor” (this also has a huge bearing on research ‘league tables’ as the same criteria have been key aspects of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) by which the relative merit of similar departments at different Universities are compared. Publication in a major journal such as Nature or Cell can be make or break for successful receipt of the next grant, a decision which Austin Smith says may be worth half a million pounds.

Journal publication is a business venture, so editors have a vested interest – it is alleged – in trying to make sure the work published there has topicality that will boost their Impact Factor and hence their esteem, their advertising revenue, etc. Some of these pressures might be alleviated by changes in the publication model (i.e. by a shift to more open access journals) but the fundamental difficulties of personal rivalry remain a flaw in the peer review process, even if the financial implications are negated.

In the absence of other methods for evaluating the quality of research, the peer review system is unlikely to be replaced in the near future. There is, however, an onus on editorial boards, and on the reviewers themselves, to see that the greatest possible integrity is maintained in ensuring that decisions about the merits of a paper for publication are made on the right grounds. The importance of virtue ethics comes into play here, with the character of the individual being a significant determinant in their actions.

UPDATE: This link goes to the contents of the Open Letter to Senior Editors.  There was also a second interview from the Today programme, with Sir Mark Walport of the Wellcome Trust. As suggested above, he emphasises the need for quality control and the potential to put the peer review documents on-line too so that the process is more open. He suggests that the reviewers need to remain anonymous so that they do not need to pull their punches.


The science and ethics of stem cells (audio)

December 6, 2009

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In March 2009 I was interviewed by SuperSonic FM, a Leicester school radio station, as part of their National Science Week activities. A recording of the interview (27.5 minutes) has recently been added to their website and can be accessed via this link.


DNA – The Promise & The Price

January 26, 2009
"A child born in 1953, the structure of DNA has just been discovered. 1989 and this babies genetic fingerprint can be identified. The first single gene for Huntington's disease has been discovered. 2003 this child's entire genetic code can now be read and faulty genes in his DNA can be adjusted. Another birth, but this time no ordinary miracle. The babies sex and eye colour were decided before she was conceived; also her hair, the shape of her nose and her intelligence. The date of her birth? Perhaps only a few years from now. She's born from a revolution in genetics. A revolution where each new step brings new questions of ethics and responsibility. And as the promises of the science gets greater, so do the questions for all of us get bigger."

Narrator Bill Paterson: "A child born in 1953, the structure of DNA has just been discovered. 1989 and this baby's genetic fingerprint can be identified. The first single gene for Huntington's disease has been discovered. 2003 this child's entire genetic code can now be read and faulty genes in his DNA can be adjusted. Another birth, but this time no ordinary miracle. The baby's sex and eye colour were decided before she was conceived; also her hair, the shape of her nose and her intelligence. The date of her birth? Perhaps only a few years from now. She's born from a revolution in genetics. A revolution where each new step brings new questions of ethics and responsibility. And as the promises of the science gets greater, so do the questions for all of us get bigger."

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DNA – The Promise & The Price provides an excellent resource for discussing the ethical implications of advancing genetic research, focusing on; gene therapy, stem cells and cloning. The documentary examines the frontiers of genetic science, revealing how researchers attempt to fulfil DNA’s potential to help cure and prevent disease. It also questions how some aspects of these novel technologies may have significant consequences for individuals and society. Bill Paterson: “Much is promised by genetic science, the manipulation of our genes. But can it deliver? And if it does are we ready to take responsibility for meddling with the very fabric of life itself: our DNA”.

"When it comes to medical research, any medical technology

Professor Steve Jones: "When it comes to medical research, any medical technology that works, it is very quickly accepted by the public. Ethicists may not like it, scientists may not like it, but the public, if they believe it works they will accept it, and the legislation will always follow. Ethics has always followed science, it's never led it and I don't see any reason why genetics is going to be any different. Ethicists would love to tell geneticists what to do, but I'm afraid the geneticists are not going to listen."

The topics found in DNA – The Promise & The Price include: genetics; genetic diseases; gene therapy; transplantation; stem cells; and cloning can all be found in the UK National Curriculum. Please note all timings mentioned  include advertisement breaks – (00:04:51 – 00:08:00, 00:25:31 – 00:28:40 and 00:46:50 – 00:50:00) 

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Could human reproductive cloning be a “Godsend”?

November 24, 2008

The ficticious "Godsend Institute", from which the film takes its name

The fictitious "Godsend Institute", from which the film takes its name

(Warning: contains plot spoilers!) The film Godsend stars Robert De Niro as a maverick fertility expert who has perfected a technique for human reproductive cloning. Following the death of their son Adam, on the day after his eighth birthday, Dr Richard Wells (De Niro) offers his services to the Duncan family telling them “you can have him back” (00:11:27). Although Godsend’s convoluted plot is entertaining, it must be noted that the science is both inaccurate and misleading. Nevertheless, there are a number of clips that highlight some of the bioethical issues, not only around human reproductive cloning, but also in terms of the links between what is legal, what is moral, and what science can do.

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Superdoctors – Miracle cures

October 20, 2008

Robert Winston introducing the programme

Commenting in the second episode of the three part Superdoctors series that “one of the most exciting frontiers of our age is stem cells“, Robert Winston goes on to ask “how will these cutting edge technologies change the way that you, and I, and are children are treated?” (Start – 00:04:02). Stem cell therapy is at the beginning of its expected transition from the laboratory to the clinical application. The programme seeks to distinguish the hype from the genuine developments and to examine some of the hard decisions that need to be taken. Several of the key ethical issues associated with stem cell research have been considered in posts about other programmes (see for example Are hybrid embryos an ethical step too far? – The Big Questions and Bioethics Briefing – Stem cells). This episode, however, is particularly useful for consideration of two issues:

  • Public understanding of science and the management of expectations
  • Clinical trials and “therapeutic misconception”

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Are hybrid embryos an ethical step too far? – The Big Questions

December 31, 2007

Following the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority’s decision to approve the creation of ‘animal-human’ hybrid embryos, or “cybrids”, the inaugural episode of the BBC’s new ethics show The Big Questions (BBC1, Sunday Sept 9th 2007, 10 am) included a fifteen minute debate on the topic. The programme provides some useful material for discussing the issue.

This initial post outlines the thrust of the discussion.  Interested readers are strongly encouraged to look at the extended commentary Science and ethics of cybrids – reflections on some recent media coverage, which includes not only a fuller account of the exchanges on The Big Questions, but also draws upon a similar discussion on The Guardian’s Science Weekly Podcast of September 10th. The relevance of a number of recent scientific papers on the biology of stem cells is also considered.  You may also like to watch a BBC news report following the announcement – go to their News page ‘Human-animal’ embryo green light and follow the ‘Watch’ link on the right-hand side. Read the rest of this entry »