Following up on my post last week about Emerging Biomedical Technologies and their Promise, Nature had a timely editorial in last week’s issue. In Broken Promises, the article describes precisely the phenomenon that I was referring to:
Intense public support for clinical research can be a mixed blessing – and the hunt for a vaccine against AIDS offers an important lesson for many biomedical initiatives on what can go wrong.
But if the AIDS vaccine field is in crisis, it is partly a crisis of its own making – one that holds lessons for many other areas of biomedical research. Decisions to move Merck’s vaccine candidate and a previous failed candidate into clinical trials were based only partly on science. Also a factor was the field’s need to show the public that progress is being made, thereby justifying the millions of dollars it receives from philanthropists and taxpayers. Historically, AIDS research has been afforded especially strong public support in the United States, but that means it works under an unusually intense public microscope. When promised results are not delivered, it’s a double blow to the field, setting back the search for therapies while eroding public support.
This is an important lesson for other fields, most notably those, such as autism, Parkinson’s and stem-cell research, that are funded by a new breed of philanthropic organizations and agencies that use a more ‘business-like’ management model. The end-point and milestone-driven funding model used by these organizations has become increasingly fashionable, as has their practice of setting more directed research priorities at the outset.
I quote these two paragraphs in full because they hold an extremely important lesson that ambitious researchers would be wise to heed, and many researchers are ignoring. That is, while engineering may be driven by this endpoint-driven funding model, science should not. A good science proposal is not about the endpoint – as much as that is marketable to the general public – it is about the immediate question. Moreover, the good experiment is not driven by the goal to prove some goal, but to devise a simple and straightforward means of answering a relevant question with a definitive “yes” or “no” answer.
To be fair though, there are good reasons why such ambitious projects are undertaken by the scientists and the funding programs alike: They seek to improve the medical reality seen in clinics around the world. That’s not science, that’s just being human. The article echoes that sentiment, by acknowledging that scientists have no choice but to reach out to the public for support, and admonishes scientists to avoid promising results they cannot deliver. Which is true in hindsight, but completely unhelpful, seeing as how there is no suggestion on how scientists can make all their promises deliverable.