Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Keep your hands off of my science

Science is great.

Say you want to see which medicine is the most effective at curing the flu. A good test would be to grab a group of sick people and give half of them treatment A and half of them treatment B, and see how they do.

There may be a couple problems with this, though. Maybe when picking the groups you do a bad job and get sicker people in one group than the other, or there's a noticeable age divide. A good way of countering the possibility of bias here is to have truly random group division. If you had a large enough group of people and tossed a coin on each to divide them into two groups, you could expect a reasonably fair trial.

What if the patients taking the medicine have heard rumors about treatment A or B, though? Maybe A seems more serious and they stress out about how ill they are, or they've heard that B is newly-developed and not proven? Fortunately, this is easily countered by doing a blind trial - don't tell any of the patients what medicine they're getting, and then compare the results.

But what if the doctors administering the medicine similarly have heard rumors about either treatment? Maybe they'd pay more attention to the patients with the perceived weaker treatment, or interpret the results to fit their expectations. Countering this has led to one of the pinnacles of scientific testing: the double-blind trial: neither the doctors nor the patients know who is getting what treatment. Only after all the testing is complete and the results are analyzed can the conclusions be actually drawn.

This pursuit of eliminating bias to get fair and true scientific results is one of the best features of science. The problem is that it doesn't stop there.

There is quite simply never enough funding for science. There are virtually unlimited questions about our world (about even just our own bodies) that have yet to be formulated, let alone answered, and there is only ever a limited amount of funding to cover all of the research to be done. Scientists clamor over each other trying to get the funding, which often comes either from government research centers or from corporations.

Now, I have nothing wrong with the idea of corporations investing money in research. I have a problem with how that can (sometimes deliberately) skew the results. While it may sound a bit like a conspiracy, study after study has shown that scientists know who pays the bills, and this has a significant impact on their results. These effects may not always be deliberate, but just like a patient may receive clues from a doctor on how well they think a treatment will work, a researcher may be aware that if they say a product is bad they won't get future funding from that company.

With that all said, I am extremely (bold, italics, and underlined) frustrated with the Government of Alberta's proposal to focus funding away from "curiosity-driven research" and align research funding to coincide with the province's "economic diversification agenda."

Presumably the government wants to make sure it's getting good value for its research dollar, but since when has curiosity-driven research been of low value? Newton and Galileo made great leaps in the name of curiosity, and the most sophisticated piece of technology outside of our world is called Curiosity. Some of the best things we know of like penicillin were only discovered by accident, and vaccinations were only discovered out of pure 'willing-to-sacrifice-little-kids' curiosity.

The only way to eliminate this last major obstacle of bias in science is to make the funding itself blinded. If a company anonymously sponsored scientists in another country to perform research on a drug that also remained anonymous to them, the rest of the research was double-blinded, and the results were made public, we would truly have the highest standard of scientific study. This is the exact opposite of the direction in which the government wants to take research.

At its worst, we could have a government who picks and chooses which cancers are important to study. Or which forms of mining should be improved. Or has an undue influence on the results of climate research. This is bad for innovation, creativity, and the production of true and objective science, and should be fiercely opposed.