Wednesday, January 15, 2014

How to increase value and reduce waste 1

As promised the day before yesterday I want to have a closer look at the individual publications in the new series in The Lancet on wasteful research and ways to overcome this issue

The first paper was written by an international group of biomedical researchers. The lead author is one of two who, back in 2009 made the perhaps bold statement that the incredible amount of 85% the investment in science is actually wasted because of a flawed system. The new paper discusses how avoidable waste can be considered when research priorities are set. According to the authors a lot of research does not lead to worthwhile achievements. They provide to potential reasons for this. One problem is that some studies are conducted to further understand basic concepts and mechanisms but the findings have no societal benefit. That is one argument I've heard very often. Actually that's the one you might hear not only from potential funding partners but also from family and friends. The problem is that especially groundbreaking basic research starts without any consideration of relevance to society but purely to advance knowledge. Often it is just one individual with a new idea. As a consequence different models have been proposed for decisions about which high-risk basic research to support. These models suggest to fund individual scientists rather than projects to allow maximum freedom of thinking and action. However, nobody is following these ideas. One example in the paper is the U.S. NIH funding in 2011 where only 0.001% of all proposals were in categories that focus on individuals. ...the kind of creative lateral thinking that has led to important advances in understanding has had to survive peer-review systems that tend to be innately conservative, subject to fashion, and often inimical to ideas that do not conform with mainstream thinking. Experimental evidence suggests that a strong bias against novelty does exist in traditional peer-review systems. Moreover, peers tend to support proposals that have similar fingerprints to their own interests, not those that are really novel.

The other issue is that often good research yields unexpected results. Well, that is science, and I agree with the authors that as long as the way in which these ideas are prioritised for research is transparent and warranted, these disappointments should not be deemed wasteful; they are simply an inevitable feature of the way science works.

In their attempt to define what might be a good way to separate the wheat from the chaff they provide a nice figure of research categories. They essentially adapted Pasteur's quadrant, a term that was introduced by Donald Stokes in 1997. The renaming was done to fit the quadrant into the biomedical context. Stokes initially had named the category for basic research Bohr quadrant and the one for pure applied research Edison quadrant. The definitions are essentially the same. Important is the waste quadrant reflecting research that neither advances knowledge nor makes any relevant strides towards immediate application.

Well, translated into our world of biodiversity science, all the taxonomic work (species descriptions, discoveries, revisions) falls in to the Curie quadrant as it advances knowledge without prior consideration of further relevance in other fields. Pure applied research in a DNA Barcoding context (Doll quadrant) could be the development of new technologies that utilize barcoding data, e.g. an eDNA probe to discover invasive or rare species in a given region. The Pasteur quadrant is filled wih all those studies that utilize barcoding to address important issues e.g. in conservation biology, ecology, food safety etc. And yes, we do have examples in the Waste quadrant such as studies that try to introduce yet another primary DNA Barcoding region such as repeated attempts to replace COI in fish with cytb or 16S. This ought not be confused with the search for complementary gene regions because the defined standards have proven insufficient in particular taxonomic groups.
There is a lot more information in the paper and a number of suggestions to improve the system of research funding. I can only recommend to read it (it is open access after you signed up with The Lancet). The authors also state that research funders have the primary responsibility for reductions in waste resulting from decisions about what research to do. Therefore, most of the general recommendations made are actually meant to improve the decision making system on their end including a great deal of transparency for us scientists:
More research on research should be done to identify factors associated with successful replication of basic research and translation to application, and how to achieve the most productive ratio of basic to applied research
Monitoring—periodic surveys of the distribution of funding for research and analyses of yields from basic research
Research funders should make information available about how they decide what research to support, and fund investigations of the effects of initiatives to engage potential users of research in research prioritisation
Monitoring—periodic surveys of information on research funders' websites about their principles and methods used to decide what research to support
Research funders and regulators should demand that proposals for additional primary research are justified by systematic reviews showing what is already known, and increase funding for the required syntheses of existing evidence
Monitoring—audit proposals for and reports of new primary research
Research funders and research regulators should strengthen and develop sources of information about research that is in progress, ensure that they are used by researchers, insist on publication of protocols at study inception, and encourage collaboration to reduce waste
Monitoring—periodic surveys of progress in publishing protocols and analyses to expose redundant research

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