Monday, November 25, 2013

A Prescient Thought by C.S. Lewis

The 50th anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis was three days ago (the same day as the 50th anniversary of the death of JFK). I saw the passage from his writings that I have pasted below in a number of different articles and blog posts noting the occasion, including one by Steven Hayward (currently a scholar at the University of Colorado). As Hayward notes, it was prescient:

  • Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

"Hooey" Part 2: Harold Varmus Weighs In

How hard is it going to be to change the culture of scientists judging their peers by whether they make the effort to get their work in the journals Cell, Science etc.?  I don't know. Based on the discussions of grants and investigators that took place at the most recent NIH study section (meeting of scientists to evaluate NIH grant applications) I attended, the tendancy of many towards judgments based on controversial measurements of journal prestige is well-ingrained.  This bias was discussed in my last post.

I don't want to belabor the point, but I will anyway. This is from a recent article in Science on the prominent biomedical scientist Harold Varmus.  He has held a number of prominent positions, and is now head of the National Cancer Institute:

  • Varmus also wants to address what he calls the "flawed values system" that the competitive atmosphere has spawned. He laments that researchers feel they will win funding only if they publish in top journals such as Science, Nature, and Cell. At NCI, he is pilot-testing a way to change this part of the scientific culture: by revising the "biosketch," the summary of a researcher's record that accompanies a grant proposal. Varmus wants to replace a section that now lists major publications with a narrative describing the investigator's five major accomplishments.This approach, already used by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), should not only discourage reviewers from assessing their colleagues based only on where they're published; it will also help researchers on large teams whose names are buried in a list of authors receive the credit they deserve, Varmus says. And he thinks that easing the rush to publish in high-impact journals might help address a much-discussed problem: that many NIH-funded studies have proved difficult to reproduce.  (emphasis mine)

Incidentally, I didn't realize until reading the article that Varmus was an important player in bringing about the doubling of the NIH budget over 5 years beginning about 1999. Paradoxically, this doubling contributed greatly to the subsequent funding woes, now worse than ever. Indeed, the article candidly states that the doubling helped bring about today's funding problems. Varmus claims that the doubling wasn't a mistake: he knew that the rapid increase in the NIH budget could cause problems but thought these could be avoided by facilitating a "soft landing." This "soft landing" was to be afforded by continuing budget increases that "kept pace with rising costs . . . ." This was plainly naive. How could anyone who observes how the government operates expect this type of  long-term rational budgeting? Of course there was no soft landing. The biomedical work force and the number of new grants funded was greatly expanded, but these good times were, sure enough, followed my a massive hangover when it turned out there wasn't enough money to keep the party going.

Friday, November 15, 2013

A follow-up to the previous post regarding "hooey" in the scientific literature

I was talking to a prominent, accomplished biochemist at my institution about a possible collaboration. I mentioned a key paper supporting the scientific premise, and she asked me where it was published. When I gave her the name of the solid but non-prestige journal where it appeared, she said something along the lines of: "Oh good, it wasn't in Cell. That means its not a bunch of hooey." My paraphrasing is accurate, but the only word I distinctly remember is "hooey."  Hence, the title of this follow-up to the immediately preceding post.

A surprisingly huge amount of BS ends up in the scientific literature. Many of the reasons for this are well-known and fairly obvious: for example, intense pressures to publish, difficulties publishing negative results, and academic and grant review committees that simply count numbers of papers published rather than assess content and contribution. Given the competition and politics involved in publishing in the very highest prestige journals (such as Cell), is it any wonder that misrepresentation and outright fraud is even more prevalent in these periodicals? Leaders in the field are urging us to stop paying attention to measurements of journal prestige and focus more on the content of what is published: basically, to stop the games surrounding publishing in Cell, Science, etc.  This is highly commendable. But it is going to be hard to change this attribute of biomedical scientific culture.

In any case, yet more articles have come out accurately reporting on what is becoming less our dirty little secret and more our public scandal.  Yet another article.  And a video discussion.