Saturday 7 May 2016

Would paying by results improve reproducibility?

Twitter and Facebook were up in arms last week. "Merck wants its money back if University research is wrong" was the headline to the article that set off the outrage.

Commentators various described the idea as dangerous, preposterous and outrageous, and a 'worrying development', while at the same time accusing Merck of hypocrisy for its history of misleading claims about its vaccines and drugs.

In the comments beneath the article, similar points were made: 'No way any academic institutions will agree to this'; 'If you want absolute truth take up religion'; 'Merck wants risk-free profit'.

But if you follow the link to the article that the story was based on, it's clear that the headline in the Technology Review piece was misleading.

For a start, the author of the piece, Michael Rosenblatt, was clear that he was not representing an official position. Under 'competing interests' we are told: "M.R. is an employee of and owns stock and stock options in Merck & Co. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily correspond to the views of the author’s employer."

Rosenblatt's focus is irreproducible scientific research: a topic that is receiving increasing attention in biomedicine among other disciplines. He notes the enormous waste that occurs when a pharma company like Merck attempts to use basic biomedical research to develop new drug targets. Whether or not you approve of Merck's track record, there is no question but they have legitimate concerns. He explains that the costs of building a translational project on shaky biomedical foundations are so great that pharma companies will now routinely try to replicate original findings before taking them forward. Except that, all too often, they find they cannot do so. Since it can take between 2-6 scientists one to two years to conduct a replication, the costs of irreproducible science are substantial.

Rosenblatt notes that there have been numerous suggestions for improving reproducibility of biomedical science; mostly these concern aspects of training, and altering promotion practices so that academic scientists will have an incentive to do reproducible research. His proposal is that pharmaceutical companies could also address incentives by making their financial deals with universities contingent on the reproducibility of the results.

In effect, Rosenblatt wants those who do the research in universities to ensure it is reproducible before they bring it forward for pharmaceutical companies to develop. His proposal does indeed include a 'money back' guarantee, so that if a result did not hold up, the pharmaceutical company would be compensated. But, Rosenblatt argues, this would be compensated for by additional funds made available to universities to enable them to adopt more reproducible practices, including, where necessary, replicating findings before taking them forward.

The Technology Review headline misses all this nuance and just implies that Merck is being naïve and unrealistic in assuming that scientists have some kind of pre-cognition about the outcomes of experiments. That is far from being the case: the emphasis is rather on the importance of ensuring that findings are as solid as possible before publishing them, and suggesting that pharma companies could play a role in incentivising reproducible practies by tweaking their funding arrangements with Universities.

Obviously, the devil would be in the detail, and Rosenblatt is careful to avoid being too specific, suggesting instead that this is not intended as a panacea, but rather as an idea that would be worth piloting. I'm as cynical as the next person about the motives of pharmaceutical companies, but I have to say I think this is an interesting suggestion that could be in the interests of scientific progress, as well as benefiting both universities and pharmaceutical companies.

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