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.
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…
Press 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.
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.
Take 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...