By Ahsan Choudary
Discoveries in health and medicine have the power to directly impact our life or the life of a loved one. Consequently, there is the possibility that biotech entrepreneurs or scientists could pull at heartstrings and oversell a discovery in the hopes of gathering capital or gaining funding.
Elizabeth Holmes, the CEO of Theranos, was last year’s impressive example of the burgeoning biotech industry: youthful business acumen combined with exuberant scientific progress.
Theranos was able to raise over $750 million in investor funds, with the charismatic Holmes at the helm of a $9 billion dollar ship, for a proprietary technology that claimed to quickly process a full panel of lab tests from an astoundingly small amount of blood at a fraction of the cost of a regular workup.
In spite of the promising advance in technology, Holmes was placed in the hot seat after a series of investigative reports by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Carreyrou (see here and here). Carreyrou pierced the hype surrounding the upstart company, investigated the claims, and discovered that the technological promises simply did not add up.
The Theranos example leads us to ask the question, “What should the public to believe?”
At worst, the new technology promised by Theranos is an outright lie. At best, it may be a highly ambitious and daring idea that exists in a world where we do not yet have the technological wizardry to execute it.
However we choose to interpret the actions surrounding these events, the unfolding drama calls to attention important issues relevant to all biomedical researchers, including communication of science, transparency and reproducibility of scientific research, and the credibility of science.
Ineffective communication, lack of transparency and reproducibility of research, and outright lies are not new to science. Hwang Woo-Suk’s stem cell cloning controversy and Haruko Obokata’s false claims about the creation of a novel technique to produce pluripotent cells demonstrate that bad science happens more than we may realize.
Further, once bad science makes its way into the public consciousness, it never really goes away. As evidence, we can point to Wakefield’s anomalous study linking autism to childhood vaccinations, which has had a mind-melding hold on a sizable segment of the public.
In spite of complete discrediting and retraction, the published lies still run rampant in the minds of many who extol the dangers of and, thereby, create serious public health threats.
The foundations of scientific research are based upon the unbiased, logical, rational search for truth, while pseudo-science and misinformation relies upon emotions in order to propagate. Unfortunately, false ideas based on emotions, such as hope or fear, are powerful and can often trump the true. Consequently, once emotionally-based ideas spread, they are difficult to overcome.
In fact, scientific findings that are presented incorrectly can develop a life of their own. Last summer, researchers in New York claimed that they found evidence (amended study here) of the bubonic plague and anthrax in the city’s subway systems, causing the citizens of NYC to succumb to panic and fear.
Later, Retraction Watch stated that the conclusions were false and that the scientists analyzed the incorrect region of DNA. While the researchers did later acknowledge that these findings were no cause for alarm, the damage from miscommunication was already done, but once the media got wind of the story, it was too late.
Miscommunication, lack of transparency, and downright lies can severely damage scientists’ public credibility and tank potential scientific innovations.
Going back to the Theranos drama, it is clear that the company has suffered for its exaggerations and shortcomings.
The company’s investors guzzled the Kool Aid and backed the company with hundreds of millions of dollars for a little proven technology, possibly due to the winner’s curse phenomenon and the fact that investments in risky biotech propositions can often be emotionally-based rather than fact-based.
It may be easy to exonerate ourselves from ever toeing the line the way Elizabeth Holmes did, but where exactly does the promotion of ideas cross the line to exaggeration? Where does that exaggeration transform into miscommunication? And where is the line that one then crosses into outright lies? It’s not always so cut and dry or easy to demarcate. Especially when scientists are motivated by fame and worldwide acknowledgement or a big monetary payoff.
Given these issues, what are we scientists to do?
Research by the Pew Research Center has shown that while the American public still holds a favorable view of scientists and science research, the last five years have seen a slow but steady rise in negative views.
I believe that as a scientist, we must be held accountable. Whether the issue is transparency and reproducibility of scientific data, communication of science to the public, or development of effective public health policy, honesty and integrity must be central tenets of any scientist’s creed.
Doing anything less could compromise research funding, as evidenced by Senator Tom Coburn’s scathing 2011 report that stated that, “a significant percentage of your money is going to what most Americans will consider fraud, waste and abuse… Taxpayers may also question the value of many of the projects [The National Science Foundation] actually chose to fund.”
Fortunately, the UT Health Science Center has monthly workshops called the “Spotlight on Research Integrity” to remind us how to maintain research integrity as a core value.
Second, we scientists must learn to communicate our message in a way that is interesting, applicable, and clear to the public.
To demonstrate the importance of this issue, a recent survey by the Pew Research Center of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science showed that 84 percent of those polled believe that the public’s limited knowledge of science was a major problem for their field.
Further findings indicated that 30 percent of scientists reported that they rarely or never speak to reporters and only 10 percent reported that wrote science for public consumption themselves. See the discrepancy? We must clearly speak for ourselves before someone else speaks for us.
Finally, our responsibility as scientists is far beyond simply conducting research, soliciting funding, and publishing results.
Part of our work is to ensure that our findings are properly crafted into a public-friendly message, properly presented as a continuous dialogue with the public, and properly heard by our target audience.
If we cannot demonstrate the importance of our findings to non-scientists, how else are we to garner further support and public trust?
If we fail to make our voices public, consequences may include misunderstandings with the public that can lead to undue public health harm, further mistrust, and promotion of misguided health care policy.
For more information, see the article on UT Health Science Center.
Photo: Joe Brusky/Flickr
Ahsan Choudary is a graduate fellow in the Translational Science Ph.D. program and conducts cardiovascular disease research in the lab of Laura Cox, Ph.D. at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute. He also co-founded the student and post-doc-led consulting group, Commercialization Catalysts. He works with the Office of Technology Commercialization to accelerate benchtop discoveries to clinical care through facilitation of research and development of cutting edge university technologies.