Does Academia Slow Down Cures?

22Jun09

So, this has taken me awhile to post, and for those of you who read various and sundry science blogs regularly, this is probably old news. But I’ll post my thoughts anyway, because its my blog and I’ll do what I want */childish voice*.

Sharon Begley of Newsweek recently published an article asserting that academia and organized science essentially slows down the path from basic science to a meaningful “cure”. The crux of her argument: academic science as we currently know it emphasizes basic science and novel discoveries and de-emphasizes research around patient treatments and the like (the so called “translational research”). Her solution: an NIH director with a comittment to shepherd translational research forward.

Now, stuff like this is important to me, because when it comes down to it, Epidemiology as a field is almost entirely the kind of research Begley is convinced isn’t getting as much attention as it deserves. Rarely will you see a publication proposing a new mechanism on a molecular level or the like from your run of the mill case-control study. Often, our research is used to either inform research into those areas (“X is twice as likely as Y to have disease, how does that work?”) or to evaluate research that’s been done, as with clinical trials. So I should be totally on board this Translational Research Bandwagon.

Except I’m not. Or more accurately, I’m not for the reasons the article outlines.

Begley’s criticisms rely on some anecdotal stories from researchers, who either had a hard time getting their research funded, or found their translational research being published in “less prestigious” journals than their or others more basic science research. But there’s no evidence that this is a system-wide phenomena – indeed, I’d counter with my own anecdotes that translational research is currently the new golden child of the area of science I’m exposed to, and if its not going to cure kids with horrible cancers, we’re all only faintly interested. Either way, I have no idea which is actually true. As for the journal publications – even if we accept that Impact Factor is a good way to rank the quality of a journal (it isn’t) – her example doesn’t necessarily support her conclusions.

In her article, she discusses a scientist who gets more “pure” findings published in a journal with a high Impact Factor ranking, and his applied research in a lower one, and suggests this is due to less interest in the applied research. But there’s myriad other explinations. Off the top of my head:

  • The journals could have different niches. Perhaps the higher ranked journal specializes in basic science findings, and as such is cited often (the determinant of ones impact factor) because an article that appears there can be used for each and every “pure” or translational research publication in need of a citation for a potential causal mechanism.
  • Perhaps the reseacher’s translational work is just not as good. Any truly basic, wet-lab research I did, for example, would (I hope) be inferior to any population-based epidemiology work I did, simply because I have vastly more training in the latter. It’s not outside the realm of possibility to suggest an outstanding basic science researcher may not produce quite as compelling work when they apply it to human populations.
  • Luck. Seriously, peer review is a fuzzy process sometimes. Maybe a reviewer just didn’t like their study – or them. Maybe the journal doesn’t have room, or is trying to move in a new direction. Maybe the other paper got into a fairly prestigious journal through a curious channel – as with a paper I’ve written – and is essentially a single example of them playing in a higher league than their normally do.

I also thought it was funny to see some of the clinical and translational research journals refereed to as “low ranking”, which most people I work with would kill to see their articles there. I’d also like to note that the New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, The Lancet etc. are all clinical and translational research focused, and one could make a decent career exclusively publishing there.

Now, I will admit that the NIH review process tends to favor basic science over translational research – its how the NIH is set up. And if you changed the incentives for that system, we would see more translational research. But I also think its disingenuous to suggest that basic and translational research are antagonistic systems. While they do compete for funding, they can’t survive without each other. Especially translational research – if you don’t have incremental but determined discoveries in the basic sciences, what exactly are you translating? Without bench science suggesting biological pathways, molecular targets and the like, pointing out population-level associations is just as uselessly self-indulgent as pursing purely laboratory knowledge with no concern for its application.

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One Response to “Does Academia Slow Down Cures?”


  1. 1 Tangential Voices: Controversy about Academia and How it May Slow the Search for Cures «

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