‘Hype’ hurts scientific progress: conference
University of Alberta professor and UBC professor debate Hype and the Sources of Spin, and how it affects how scientists work in the laboratory at conference at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue in Vancouver, B.C. on Thursday March 13, 2014. (CARMINE MARINELLI/ 24 HOURS)
A Vancouver conference is calling on government to protect independent research, as the increasingly cutthroat politics behind funding is pressuring scientists to go for sexy over sensible.
The scientific community is struggling in an age where “hype” is harming the quality of research, said health law and policy researcher Timothy Caulfield, speaking downtown Thursday at the Brain Science and Social Responsibility conference.
The call comes as Ottawa is under fire for cutting federal programs and shutting down research facilities — backing economic interests at the expense of pure science.
“Right now, government policy is going all over the world in the opposite direction,” Caulfield said. “If government is not protecting science, if government is not protecting independent inquiry, then who is going to?”
For example, he said, scientists are being pressured to write abstracts or summaries of their research findings that sound “sexy” to get published.
Seemingly “noble” causes, or research that suggests a quick benefit for the public, attract more public funding, he said. Industries have agendas they promote by paying for scientific findings. Celebrities and their health concerns, such as actress Angelina Jolie and her widely publicized mastectomy, are followed by millions regardless of how rare their conditions may be.
“The problem is when you have nowhere else to turn (for funding) to do your research,” Caulfield said.
“We live in a market economy. If you’re going to have these technologies make it into people’s hands — you have to work with industry, for sure.
“We need to recognize there are risks with that.”
The media is also to blame, twisting findings to suit them. Caulfield pointed to headlines such as “chocolate can make you slimmer” or “red wine could help you lose weight.” That red wine study was done on bees, he noted.
University of B.C. journalism professor Candis Callison added the press is constantly aware of what engages the public.
“Prominence. Impact. Proximity. Conflict. All of these things define very much what we think of as news,” she said.
“In terms of science, one other very prominent news value comes into play — the unexpected. The surprise. The extraordinary.”
Caulfield warned researchers must balance those pressures to be “independent,” and is asking for public support.