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Journal of Medical Biochemistry

The Journal of Society of Medical Biochemists of Serbia

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Science at the Crossroads: Fact or Fiction?

David Goldberg1

Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada1

This content is open access.

Citation Information: Journal of Medical Biochemistry. Volume 30, Issue 2, Pages 79–92, ISSN (Online) 1452-8266, ISSN (Print) 1452-8258, DOI: 10.2478/v10011-011-0004-8, December 2010

Publication History

Published Online:
2010-12-22

Science at the Crossroads: Fact or Fiction?

Modern Academic Science is largely based on the formulation of hypotheses that are then confirmed through observations and experiments. There is little scope for curiosity that played an important role in early Science. Results carrying negative implications are not easy to publish, and hypotheses have a tendency to take on the mantra of religious beliefs. Academic Science is facing on many fronts pressures that hardly existed in the past. Financial rewards apart from salary can be very high, in the form of fees for consultants, expert legal witnesses, patent development, and even the establishment of private companies. Commercial funding forms a significant percentage of the Total Research Budgets in Science and Medicine, but this often leads to loss of control over research protocols and freedom to communicate the results. Media attention confers fame and prestige that is assiduously sought out by some individual scientists, often supported by University resources, and Press Conferences prior to or synchronous with actual publication. Scientists have long been employed full-time by Government Departments, but research contracts are being increasingly offered by the latter to academic staff on a part-time basis. These pressures and opportunities, together with the priority given to research by most University Tenure and Promotion Committees, are tending to diminish the appetite of scientists for other important responsibilities such as teaching and administration. In a few decades, University scientists have moved from the »Ivory Tower« to the High Street, and many are serving more than one master. The above scenario may bring increased remuneration and the pursuit of research that would be too expensive without these external sources, but adverse consequences have also occurred. They may lead to the complicity of scientists, through no fault of their own, in the introduction of drugs and supplements that: a) fail to deliver the benefits claimed; b) increase the risk of some unrelated illness; c) possess dangerous side effects not known or reported at the time of introduction. Examples include hormone replacement therapy and antioxidant vitamins (A and E) to protect against Coronary Heart Disease; dietary fibre to prevent colon cancer; and arguably calcium supplements to treat osteoporosis. On occasions, academic scientists have served as fronts for the publication by the manufacturers of falsified reports minimizing the risk of serious drug side-effects to ensure Regulatory Approval, as occurred with Vioxx in the treatment of arthritis, and Seroquel for schizophrenia and bipolar depression. Individual fraud or misconduct is more frequent than suspected, because most incidents are without major impact and are suppressed by Universities and Funding Agencies. Major scandals are rare, but may have serious repercussions for the general public and bring science into disrepute. Recent examples include: the Cold Fusion controversy (Low Energy Nuclear Reaction); the link age by Andrew Wakefield of autism with Rubella vaccination; the infamous creation of stem cells by somatic cell nuclear transfer falsely reported by Hwang Woo-Suk. Fraud by commercial companies is subject to the full force of the law, but Science is treated as a self-regulating profession, and as such the punishments handed out are relatively trivial. In essence, Science prior to 1950, except in North America, proceeded along a highway that segregated the traffic into Commercial, Government and Academic streams, and passed through inspiring landscapes and green pastures. It later came to a crossroads from which the alternative road led to the Marketplace, and on which segregation into the above three streams was not enforced. It has now become the main thoroughfare for Science world-wide, but there are reasons to believe that this has increased the incidence of dangerous driving and traffic accidents in the form of conflicts of interest, unethical behaviour, misconduct and even fraud. It may be too late to return to the crossroads and continue along the original highway, but there could be considerable merit in restoring the original segregation between the three streams of Science and in developing, as well as enforcing, a stricter code of behaviour, for which some elements are proposed.

Nauka na Raskršću: Činjenica ili Fikcija?

Moderna nauka se uglavnom zasniva na formulisanju pretpostavki koje se potom potvrđuju kroz opažanje i eksperimente. Malo mesta ostaje za znatiželju koja je na ranom stupnju razvoja nauke imala važnu ulogu. Rezultate koji nose negativne implikacije nije lako objaviti, dok pretpostavke postepeno poprimaju oblik religijskih mantri. Nauka na akademskom nivou suočava se na mnogim frontovima sa pritiscima kojih u prošlosti gotovo da nije bilo. Pored plate, na raspolaganju su veoma visoke novčane nadoknade, kao što su honorari za konsultante, sudske veštake, za razvoj patenata, čak i osnivanje privatnih preduzeća. Komercijalno finansiranje zamenjuje vladine i nekomercijalne izvore, zbog čega se često gubi kontrola nad protokolima istraživanja kao i sloboda da se rezultati objave. Medijska pažnja donosi slavu i prestiž na čijem sticanju pojedini naučnici marljivo rade, neretko uz podršku univerzitetskih resursa i organizovanje konferencija za štampu pre ili u času izlaska publikacije. Naučnici su odavno stalno zaposleni u vladinim ministarstvima, ali ta ministarstva sve češće nude ugovore za istraživanja akademskom osoblju na bazi honorarnog rada. Takvi pritisci i prilike, uz prioritet koji istraživanju daju univerzitetski komisije za mandate i unapređivanje, praktično umanjuju želju naučnika da preuzmudruge važne odgovornosti poput podučavanja i administracije. Za nekoliko decenija, univerzitetski naučnici su se od elite pretvorili u biznismene, pri čemu mnogi od njih opslužuju više gospodara. Gornji scenario može doneti veću finansijsku dobit i omogućiti istraživanja koja bi bez tih spoljašnjih izvora bila preskupa. Ipak, javljale su se i negativne posledice, koje mogu naučnike, ne njihovom krivicom, navesti da postanu saučesnici pri uvođenju lekova i suplemenata koji: a) ne uspevaju da ostvare obećani boljitak, b) povećavaju rizik od nekih drugih bolesti; c) imaju opasna neželjena dejstva nepoznata ili neprijavljena u trenutku uvođenja. Neki od primera su terapija zamene hormona i antioksidantni vitamini (A i E) radi zaštite od koronarne srčane bolesti; dijetetska vlakna za sprečavanje raka kolona; i potencijalno suplementi za kalcijum u cilju lečenja osteoporoze. Događalo se da naučnici posluže kao paravan proizvođačima prilikom objavljivanja falsifikovanih izveštaja u kojima se umanjuje rizik od ozbiljnih neželjenih dejstava leka kako bi se obezbedilo zvanično odobrenje, kao što je bio slučaj sa Vioxxom za lečenje artritisa i Seroquelom za depresiju. Pojedinačne prevare ili zloupotrebe češće su nego što se pretpostavlja, jer većina incidenata nema veliki odjek i biva zataškana od strane univerziteta i agencija za finansiranje. Pravi skandali su retkost, ali mogu imati ozbiljne posledice u javnosti i okaljati ugled nauke. Nedavni primeri uključuju: polemiku oko hladne fuzije (niskoenergetska nuklearna reakcija); nameru Andrewa Wakefielda da poveže autizam sa vakcinacijom protiv rubeola; zloglasno stvaranje stem ćelija somatskim ćelijskim nuklearnim transferom koje je lažno prijavio Hwang Woo-Suk. Prevare komercijalnih kompanija podležu sili zakona, ali kako se nauka tretira kao struka koja samu sebe reguliše, kazne koje se dele su relativno banalne. U suštini, nauka je pre 1950, naročito u severnoj Americi, išla putem na kojem je saobraćaj bio podeljen na komercijalni, vladin i akademski, prolazeći kraj inspirativnih pejzaža i zelenih pašnjaka. Kasnije je stigla na raskršće odakle je alternativni put vodio na tržište i na kom podela na navedena tri toka nije bila sprovedena. Sada je to glavni put za nauku širom sveta, ali se osnovano veruje da je to povećalo incidencu opasne vožnje i saobraćajnih nezgoda u vidu sukoba interesa, neetičkog ponašanja, zloupotrebe, pa i prevare. Možda je prekasno da se nauka vrati na raskršće i nastavi prvobitnim putem, ali vraćanje originalnoj podeli na tri toka može vredeti mnogo više, uz uspostavljanje, kao i sprovođenje, strožih pravila ponašanja.

Keywords: scientific fraud; drug development; cold fusion; dietary fibre; hormone replacement therapy; regulatory approval; rubella vaccine; stem cells; antioxidants

Keywords: naučna prevara; razvoj leka; hladna fuzija; dijetetska vlakna; hormonska supstiticiona terapija; zvanično odobrenje; vakcina rubeola; stem ćelija; antioksidansi

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