You Think Your Science Is Correct? Prove It

The state of the universe.
Aug. 14 2012 10:46 AM

Good Scientist! You Get a Badge.

Precious research money is wasted on unreal results, but we can change the culture of science.

Science laboratory.
Some scientists may get positive study results thanks simply to chance.

Photo by Alexander Raths/iStockphotos.

As a young biologist, Elizabeth Iorns did what all young biologists do: She looked around for something interesting to investigate. Having earned a Ph.D. in cancer biology in 2007, she was intrigued by a paper that appeared the following year in Nature. Biologists at the University of California-Berkeley linked a gene called SATB1 to cancer. They found that it becomes unusually active in cancer cells and that switching it on in ordinary cells made them cancerous. The flipside proved true, too: Shutting down SATB1 in cancer cells returned them to normal. The results raised the exciting possibility that SATB1 could open up a cure for cancer. So Iorns decided to build on the research.

There was just one problem. As her first step, Iorns tried replicate the original study. She couldn’t. Boosting SATB1 didn’t make cells cancerous, and shutting it down didn’t make the cancer cells normal again.

For some years now, scientists have gotten increasingly worried about replication failures. In one recent example, NASA made a headline-grabbing announcement in 2010 that scientists had found bacteria that could live on arsenic—a finding that would require biology textbooks to be rewritten. At the time, many experts condemned the paper as a poor piece of science that shouldn’t have been published. This July, two teams of scientists reported that they couldn’t replicate the results.

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Nobody got harmed by believing that a species of bacteria in a California lake could feed on arsenic. But there are lives on the line when scientists like Iorns can’t replicate a medical study. Nor is Iorns’ experience a fluke. C. Glenn Begley, who spent a decade in charge of global cancer research at the biotech giant Amgen, recently dispatched 100 Amgen scientists to replicate 53 landmark experiments in cancer—the kind of experiments that lead pharmaceutical companies to sink millions of dollars to turn the results into a drug. In March Begley published the results: They failed to replicate 47 of them.

Outright fraud probably accounts for a small fraction of such failures. In other cases, scientists may unconsciously ignore their own negative evidence and focus on the findings that provide a positive result. They may set up their experiments poorly. They may have gotten positive results thanks simply to chance.

There’s nothing wrong with being wrong in science. Science is supposed to move forward as scientists test out one another’s ideas and results. But 21st-century science struggles to live up to this ideal. Scientific journals prize flashy, original papers (in part because journalists like me write about them). A disappointing follow-up simply doesn’t have the same cachet.

After her own rough experience with replication, Iorns went on to become an assistant professor at the University of Miami. Last year she also became an entrepreneur, starting up a firm called Science Exchange that brings together scientists with companies that can perform the services they need—everything from sequencing DNA to producing a genetically engineered mouse. And today she’s using Science Exchange to launch a service called the Reproducibility Initiative. If it works, it could be a strong medicine for what ails science these days.

Here’s how it is supposed to work. Let’s say you have found a drug that shrinks tumors. You write up your results, which are sexy enough to get into Nature or some other big-name journal. You also send the Reproducibility Initiative the details of your experiment and request that someone reproduce it. A board of advisers matches you up with a company with the experience and technology to do the job. You pay them to do the job—Iorns estimates the bill for replication will be about 10 percent of the original research costs—and they report back whether they got the same results.

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