Shocking revelations around a clinical trial of a new tuberculosis vaccine are just the tip of the iceberg. Maintaining public trust in science depends on a new approach to transparency, writes Siouxsie Wiles
Ten years ago, Dr Ben Goldacre published Bad Science, a book described by The Economist as “a fine lesson in how to skewer the enemies of reason and the peddlers of cant and half-truths”. In his book, Goldacre slams the bull-shitters who misuse science, taking aim at detoxing and ‘brain gyms’, as well as ‘magical water’ homeopaths and pill-pushing fake PhD-holding nutritionists. Scientists like me shouted with glee. Goldacre followed that in 2012 with Bad Pharma, subtitled “How medicine is broken, and how we can fix it”. The book revealed how the pharmaceutical industry manipulates drug trials, buries data it doesn’t like, and misleads regulators, doctors, and patients. This time, scientists like me signed petitions and joined Goldacre’s call for all medical trials to be registered so we’d know if drug companies were trying to pull any dodgy shit by stopping their trials early, or never publishing their findings.
For the past few years I’ve been waiting for the last book in the trilogy, Bad Academy – “How science is broken, and how we can fix it”*, exposing the rot within academia and calling on scientists like me to get our house in order. You might have heard whispers of this rot, sometimes referred to as the reproducibility crisis. In a nutshell, several studies have found that many findings from many fields of science cannot be reproduced. There are lots of reasons why this is the case, ranging from researchers falsifying data, or misusing statistical tests, to researchers carrying out experiments badly or using reagents that weren’t what the researchers thought they were.
As far as I know, Goldacre hasn’t written Bad Academy* – or not yet – but this week prestigious medical journal the BMJ published an explosive investigation by its associate editor Dr Deborah Cohen. It’s shocking, gut-wrenching stuff. It relates to an experimental vaccine, MVA85A, which was recently tested in almost 3,000 infants in South Africa, to see if it could protect the babies from the infectious lung disease tuberculosis (TB). Unfortunately, MVA85A failed despite being shown to be safe and effective in studies in mice, guinea pigs, rabbits and macaque monkeys.
Or was it? Cohen has uncovered evidence that the researchers cherry-picked data from the animal studies to get further funding and approval to trial the vaccine in humans, effectively sweeping any data that showed the vaccine didn’t work under the proverbial rug. One of those studies apparently showed that when MVA85A was given to macaques along with the current vaccine (known as BCG), five of the six animals had to be euthanised because they became so ill with TB. Shocked? And if you are wondering which institution the researchers pulling this shit are from, it’s the University of Oxford, ranked number one in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.
I really can’t do the BMJ investigation justice. Please, go and read the piece for yourself. It’s a tale involving a whistleblower who paid a steep price for raising his concerns, internal investigations that cleared the researchers involved of any wrongdoing, and the perverse incentives that allow bad and fraudulent behaviour to flourish in academia.
Over the next few days you may hear a whole bunch of esteemed academics talking about how complicated it is to do vaccine experiments in animals, and how animals’ immune systems are not the same as humans, so we shouldn’t be surprised when vaccines that work in animals don’t work in humans. I imagine they are really worried about the damage the BMJ revelations will do to people’s confidence in vaccination. I know I am. Mumps cases in New Zealand are at their highest for decades, and some people still believe the dangerous bullshit disgraced former gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield spouts about the MMR vaccine and autism. And those academics are right, it is hard to do animal experiments, and there are differences between laboratory animals and humans. But that’s not the point. This is a story about hiding research data. We need to be talking about that.
You might also hear the case referred to as an isolated incident. It’s not. It’s the tip of the iceberg. At every academic institution I’ve ever worked at, I’ve seen varying examples of the kinds of stuff that have led to the reproducibility crisis, as well as shit I would call actual research misconduct. I once even tried complaining officially, but after a two-year investigation, which I am not allowed to talk about, the person involved got off. I notice they’ve since been promoted to professor.
Enough is enough. It’s time for academics to stand up, own this shit, and make real efforts to fix it. Because there are ways to fix it. Aside from making everyone do conjoined science and humanities degrees, properly training all research scientists in ethics, experimental design and analysis, and removing the perverse incentives that allow bad science and misconduct to thrive, what we also need is transparency. Just like Goldacre’s calls for all medical trials to be registered, similar moves are needed for animal trials. Hell, they are needed for all types of experiments. A growing number of scientists are reporting their methods and data online and in real time, rather than only publishing their most exciting results behind a paywall in some academic journal. It’s called open science, but is nowhere near being the accepted way to carry out scientific research. This has to change. Now. Maintaining public trust in science depends on it.
* Just to be clear, there is no actual trilogy, and I just made up that title …
Siouxsie Wiles is the author of the new book Antibiotic Resistance The End of Modern Medicine?
The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.