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About the Author

Bart Knols
Medical Entomologist (Dodewaard, Netherlands)

Bart G.J. Knols (1965) is the Managing Director of MalariaWorld, the world's first scientific and social network for malaria professionals. He is a malariologist with a Masters degree in Biology and a PhD in Medical Entomology from Wageningen University, the Netherlands. He also obtained an MBA degree from the Open University (UK) in 2006, for which he won the prestigious international ‘MBA Student of the Year 2007 Award’ as well as the Alumnus of the Year Award from the Open University. With 11 years of working experience in Africa he has managed large-scale research and vector control programmes on malaria for ministries, international or national research institutions. He has worked for the UN (IAEA) as a programme manager for three years, has served as a consultant for the World Health Organization, and is currently a Board Member of the UBS Optimus Foundation, the second largest charity in Switzerland. He has published over 130 peer-reviewed research articles, has written 16 book chapters, and has served as senior editor on a WHO/IAEA sponsored book on implementation research. In 2007 he co-edited a best-selling book titled 'Emerging Pests and Vector-Borne Diseases in Europe'. He received an Ig Nobel Prize (2006), an IAEA Special Service Award (2006), and in 2007 he became a laureate of the Eijkman medal (the highest award in the field of tropical medicine in the Netherlands). He has been a member of the Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences since 2004. Bart held an Assistant Professorship at Wageningen University until April '09 with projects across Africa. He currently directs K&S Consulting, a firm he founded in the beginning of 2007.

Post

Science: When Promises Aren’t Met

Published 19th July 2010 - 16 comments - 6257 views -

Next to me lies a book published in 1992. It is titled: ‘Malaria: Waiting for the vaccine’. That’s eighteen years ago, but vaccination against malaria is still not a reality. It has proven very difficult to develop a potent and effective vaccine against the Plasmodium parasite. At present, a huge trial, across several African countries and involving sixteen thousand children, is underway. The RTS,S vaccine is perhaps the magic bullet we’ve been waiting for all this time.

Here I am touching on the issue of promises. Promises that are being made as part of the game we call scientific endeavour. Exploring the unknown to stumble upon something that provides a cure for mankind’s worst diseases.

Scientist

juggling As a scientist, you cannot survive these days without making promises. When writing a grant proposal you need to provide as much evidence as possible that your search for the unknown will yield what you promise. Strikingly, this goes right against the basics of scientific endeavour. After all, how can you make promises if you don’t know what you are looking for?

Worse, these days most funding organisations ask you to stipulate in detail a multi-year work plan before you receive any cash to start your research. If you are lucky, you have guessed exactly the outcome of research in year 1, then year 2, and so on, until you reach the end of your project. If you are not lucky, your research in year 1 shows that your ideas were wrong from the start. But then you are stuck with several years of research that should be different but should follow the promises you made. This sounds crazy, but happens a lot. Millions of dollars are wasted because of this senseless rigour. Room for creativity, providing the very fundament of scientific endeavour, is gone.

If your research is not turning out grand results, you have a problem. The way to solve this is to try and publish your findings in as much a prestigious journal as possible. If your work gets rejected there, you move one step down (to a less prestigious journal), and then again one step down, until you find a journal that is willing to publish your article. Sounds crazy again, but is common practice in any academic environment I have worked in or with.

In the old days (say twenty years ago) if your results weren’t all that great, you would file them and perhaps forget about them until a later date. These days, virtually any piece of research that has yielded results (good or bad) gets published. To satisfy the donor by showing that you have kept your promise that you would publish the work in international peer-reviewed journals. There are more than 3000 research articles on malaria published every year. Only a small percentage of these really lead to change in the way we control malaria…

The result: Scientists continue to juggle with promises.

Once I heard a great way of circumventing these problems. A scientist told me that he would write a grant proposal for work he had already done and knew the outcome of. In that way he could tailor the proposal to exactly fit his promises. When the money would come in, he would, from time to time, send in results, and everyone was happy. Meanwhile he used the money to fund research that was truly innovative and groundbreaking…

Journalist

journalismPress releases issued by press officers working for Universities were rare in the past. Only when a real and major breakthrough was accomplished would this happen. These days virtually any article accepted for publication passes the press office. And although these officers quickly realise that the presented outcome is of mediocre significance, they know that the bosses of the University want to see headlines in the press. And so mediocre output gets blown up to magnificent proportions and does indeed make the headlines.

Journalists that receive these press releases, in turn, need to fight for attention and add spice to what they read. And so the mediocre output suddenly becomes a massive breakthrough that will save millions of lives around the globe.

The result: Journalists continue to juggle with unmet promises.

Public

The broader public is confronted with headlines produced by journalists, supposedly reflecting the outcome of the researcher’s work. But it doesn’t need much insight to see that the above issues distort science communication, and badly so.

The question becomes: who is fooling who? Is it the scientist trying to publish in big journals to satisfy the hand that feeds him? Is it the funding organisation that wants success even if they don’t get it? Is it the University desperate for media attention? Or is it the journalist that wants to steal the show with gripping headlines?

The result: everyone involved continues to juggle with promises.

Today’s news

larvaTake the latest piece of malaria research that grabbed the headlines around the world: A mosquito that no longer transmits malaria. Although the senior author of the article (Michael Riehle; University of Arizona) warned in the press release that the release of genetically engineered mosquitoes is at least a decade away, this line got conveniently forgotten in the numerous news articles that followed. Riehle maintained a healthy level of scientific integrity (and juggled his promises in the right way), but that’s not what made it into the headlines.

The BBC reported ‘Malaria-proof mosquito engineered’, and had forgotten about the fact that this had already been accomplished in 2002. Medline Plus (which claims ‘Trusted health information for you’) opened with ‘In what might someday be a major advance against one of the world's most devastating diseases’. From there it gets worse. ‘Genetically altered mosquito may spell end of malaria’, and then ‘Mosquito gene a step in malaria eradication’. And indeed, on TH!NK3 today, this work was hailed as 'One step closer to malaria control'.

Promises. Just like the book lying next to me...

 


Category: Health | Tags:


Comments

  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 19th July 2010:

    Maybe, we have to audit or manage expectations especially in an issue that is so crucial and important.


  • Luan Galani on 20th July 2010:

    Fabulous stuff!

    You got to make a perfect overview of this quite complex topic. I think you’re right on all you stated about these three spheres. I experience it every single day, as a science reporter. Even in portuguese, check the website:

    http://cienciahoje.uol.com.br/

    More than ever, I will keep a watchful eye on all this and my headlines.

    @Iris, that is it. As journalists, we have to balance our great expectations.


  • Bart Knols on 20th July 2010:

    @Iris - promises is one thing, expectations another. Indeed, if expectations would be toned down, reporting could be more realistic and down to earth. Right now, I feel that things are more and more spiralling out of control…

    @Luan - Thanks. This blog could have been 2-3 times longer, as there is much more to say on this matter. I did not even touch on the influence all this has on the MDGs. In essence, policy makers and governments are also juggling with promises. And constantly re-adjusting figures to get closer to reaching the MDGs…

    There used to be a time that everyone always started a scientific paper with ‘Every year, some 500 million people are infected with malaria’. Suddenly, last year, WHO informed the world that 280 million people got infected. Juggling, juggling, juggling… from the journalist to WHO, it’s everywhere.


  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 20th July 2010:

    Luan,

    Yes, and hopefully not be cynical grin


  • Bart Knols on 20th July 2010:

    @Iris - Not sure if cynicism fits here. It is all about NICE (Needs, Interests, Concerns and Expectations) when it gets to producing and receiving news, regardless of the topic. Have you become cynical because of TH!NK3?


  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 20th July 2010:

    hi Bart,

    No, me, definitely not. But some of my journalist colleagues are. It’s the reality.


  • Bart Knols on 20th July 2010:

    @Iris - now that’s a great topic for a blog…why are they cynical, what made them become cynical, etc. Is it what they see, experience, the devastation, the hopelessness?


  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 20th July 2010:

    you said it Bart…Yes, it’s an interesting topic for the blog. Mmm…you just gave me an idea. Will write about it soon.


  • Bart Knols on 20th July 2010:

    @Daniel - thanks for your comment.

    Ridiculous or not, may funding bodies ask for plans up front before any work is done. Needless to say, once a proposal is funded, they mostly disappear out of the window. But then why go through all this administrative stuff and waste time and money?

    Time to reach success: Well, the first research on malaria vaccines started in the 1960s, and still millions go into this research. I am not saying that this is wrong, it merely reflects the hope for the magic bullet. This then also gets into the field of lobbying. Lobbying is another key prerequisite to be successful in science these days.

    On your last comment: I fully agree. I’d go one step further: There is not a single journal that publishes research that did not yield any significant results. This results in the same work being tried time and again in labs around the world, again with a huge waste of resources. This is another reason for having MalariaWorld, so that negative results can be communicated to the broader scientific public…


  • Bart Knols on 22nd July 2010:

    @Janneth - Thanks for liking the blog. I very much like your observation and categorization of scientists. What do you reckon, are there more ‘play by the rule’ scientists or ‘blissful ignorant’ ones?

    Where would you place yourself? In a third category? Which is?


  • Daniel Nylin Nilsson on 22nd July 2010:

    Really insightful written, about pressing problems.


  • Bart Knols on 23rd July 2010:

    @Daniel - thanks. Very interesting to note that scientists are very quiet…


  • Bart Knols on 24th July 2010:

    @Yvonne - thanks for your comment. Indeed, these are issues that scientists and donors alike do not like to discuss…

    I agree with your views, and publishing (or at least notifying the scientific community) research that did not yield anything could save millions that could be used to actually control malaria in the real world…


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