In an excellent four part series writers at Boston University document a disturbing trend in research in the United States.
For decades privately funded research of a more goal oriented design has outstripped publicly funded basic research in dollars spent. In recent years there has been a decline in private funding, as well. The result is that the landmark discoveries – discoveries like that of the Higgs boson – have been made thanks to foreign investors of foreign research teams. Institutions like Boston University and MIT depend on public research funding to maintain their preeminent position in the world of academia. Without funding institutions can no longer attract the best graduate students and they go elsewhere. Graduate students are both inspiration for educators, and the machinery that makes research work.
Writers also point out that while publicly funded basic research has grown both in dollars and as a percentage of GDP, public funding for development has fallen, occasionally rising and then falling again. Presumably, legislators feel that private industry should fund development.
Having read medical journals and attended seminars over a forty year period prior to my retirement the years ago, it became apparent that the entire landscape of medical research, publication, and dissemination of information had fundamentally changed.
Some things have not changed. Educators in the Medical Sciences are pressured to do research, and to publish. The deleterious effect of this pressure is that some of the best teachers are less interested in research, and the best researchers are often terrible educators. Researchers advance. Educator’s careers languish. Research, though, gives an institution a position of eminence in a crowded and very competitive field.
During the same time period there were fundamental changes in the way research was carried out and funded. In the 1950s and 1960s there was an emphasis on research in basic science. The thinking was that basic research had given us our greatest findings; findings that were often unexpected. Research conducted on one thing led to observations that had great benefit elsewhere.
As an example, techniques developed to preserve bacterial cultures so that they could be studied at a later time led to the development of freeze drying food. Industry got a freebie due to basic research paid for by the public. Industry is used to thinking on the short term, though, in terms of next quarters profits, and the pay-off from basic research is unpredictable and long-term in scope.
This article from the NIHgives good examples of basic research that provided important new techniques both in medicine and industry. All of these advances came from asking questions like:
“How do cells talk to each other?
What controls gene activity?
How do proteins shape themselves so they can work properly?
Why should we care?”
The last question, the one in italics, turns out to be the most important question of all.
There have always been lawmakers who want to cut basic research funding. In past decades they have derisively pointed to basic research and asked why we care how fruit flies attract each other making innuendoes about “fruit fly sex voyeurs”. For the most part though, there is no glamour in basic research. Lawmakers can’t point to funding and tell the public how they are going to be helped except in the most general, long-term, way.
As a spin-off of supply side economics – Reaganomics – there was a push to switch funding from the federal government to industry. The results were predictable. “Why should we care?” became the recurrent theme. Concomitant with the conservative pull-back in public funding for economic reasons came the push by social conservatives to cut funding in areas that they deemed inappropriate.
One of the most contentious episodes in the battle for and against health research involved AIDS. Because social conservatives in the early 1980s were opposed to sex education, contraceptive use, and any overt recognition of the existence of gays and lesbians, President Ronald Reagan – despite the fact that the AIDS epidemic practically began with his inauguration - did not even mention AIDS until 2 years after he took office. This silence and lack of action continued even after his friend Rock Hudson died of AIDS complications. Eventually public pressure forced him to take action and, while he at first said that he wanted research on AIDS, the budget passed at the time actually cut research funding. The following excerpt from Wikipedia notes that after a number of years of denial, Reagan took the action needed to fund research.
“Supporters of Reagan past and present have pointed out the fact that he declared in the aforementioned September 1985 press conference that he wanted from Congress massive government research effort against AIDS similar to one President Nixon had overseen against cancer. Reagan said, "It's been one of the top priorities with us, and over the last 4 years, and including what we have in the budget for '86, it will amount to over a half a billion dollars that we have provided for research on AIDS in addition to what I'm sure other medical groups are doing." He also remarked, "Yes, there's no question about the seriousness of this and the need to find an answer." Annual AIDS related funding was $44 million in 1983, 2 years after he took office, and was $1.6 billion in 1988, an increase of over 1000 percent.”
In fact, in 1988 Reagan made a radio address on the importance of scientific research, acknowledging its importance:
“The remarkable thing is that although basic research does not begin with a particular practical goal, when you look at the results over the years, it ends up being one of the most practical things government does….We cannot know where scientific research will lead. The consequences and spin-offs are unknown and unknowable until they happen. In research, as Albert Einstein once said, imagination is more important than knowledge. We can travel wherever the eye of our imagination can see. But one thing is certain: If we don't explore, others will, and we'll fall behind. This is why I've urged Congress to devote more money to research.”
Currently, publishing findings related to climate science has created the same sort of belief related controversies that existed during the Reagan era.
Funding for government funded developmental research as a percentage of total R&D peaked in 1963 and has fallen steadily since as industry funded applied research has increased.
Businesses apparently understand the value of basic research, but look for gains over a shorter term than is afforded by basic research. Additionally, many businesses are interested in keeping the results of research secret in order to gain an edge over competitors. The result of this private research is that only positive results get published and negative results get stuck in a drawer.
A number of individuals have commented on the public benefit of open scientific research. In publicly funded basic research all results get published. The negative effect of proprietary research is that money and time are wasted as one researcher investigates some area that another researcher has already studied and found to lack benefit.
To change the publication behavior of researchers the system of rewards has to change.
Funding for medical research for the past 20-30 years has increasingly come from pharmaceutical companies. There are several problems with this. Research is goal oriented, and researchers are pressured to structure their projects so that the funder benefits financially. Pressure is applied to keep results secret so that only the company knows findings. In some cases, there has been pressure to exaggerate positive outcomes and hide negative outcomes, particularly in drug trials.
A less obvious effect of the switch to privately funded developmental healthcare research is that continuing medical education programs often bring in the researchers whose work was funded by a pharmaceutical company to talk about the diagnosis and treatment of some medical condition. The cost of bringing those researchers to speak is covered by the drug company to some extent provided that the drug company’s product is touted. The result is a form of insidious deceit.
In a recent blog about TED talks that call for open science in healthcare the reasons why open science does not exist are explored.
Excerpts from Madeline Morris Blog:
Dr. Ben Goldacre asks why medical researchers seem to publish only positive results of pharmaceutical testing, instead of openly sharing both good and bad results. (Wouldn’t you want to know everything possible about a drug you’re about to take?)
Michael Nielsen uses his TEDx talk to explore how an open industry may lead to more rapid and efficient solving of today’s most difficult scientific problems. His conclusion: “Any publicly funded science should be open science.”
Jay Bradner’s talk serves as a personal report from the front lines of the fight against cancer — and the possibilities of open science. After discovering an important compound for cancer research, Bradner and his team decided to ask: “What would happen if we were as open and honest at the earliest phase of discovery chemistry research as we could be?”
Ellen t’ Hoen describes in detail how the oppressive structure of medical patents prevents low-income patients from receiving the treatment they need to survive.
In the series of articles published by Boston University it was pointed out that in the second installment the point was made by Dr. Philip Auerswald at George Mason University that collaborative research is now leading the way in innovation. The process is much less linear than in the past where basic science findings led to various developmental research projects. The findings and research projects are conducted in a more combinatorial process. This process seems less at work in healthcare research than in other areas.