The Current

Sloppy science creates worthless cures and wastes billions, says author

Biomedical researchers are always looking for the next breakthrough, but author Richard Harris says the search comes at a high price.
Science correspondent Richard Harris explains why the quest for flashy, headline-worthy scientific studies is wasting time and money in his book, Rigor Mortis. (Courtesy of Hachette Book Group)

Biomedical research is big business. In the U.S. alone, taxpayers spend more than $30 billion a year to fund it. That money goes into finding treatments and potential cures for diseases like cancer, diabetes and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

But in his new book, Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope and Wastes Billions, science correspondentRichard Harrissays the biomedical system is seriously flawed and that it often rewards the wrong behaviours. 

"It's a result of this funding crunch where they have to do something to keep their grants flowing," Harris tells The Current's guest host Duncan McCue.  
Richard Harris says roughly 50 per cent of what is published in biomedical literature is wrong. (Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)

"And so basically they need flashy results, they need exciting findings and they are discouraged from finding flaws in their own studies."

He argues that too many of the published scientific research findings are simply wrong. 

"If you look at the scientific literature overall, particularly the biomedical literature, I think there is a pretty strong argument that about half of what gets published is wrong."

Harris says that as a result, development of new drugs has become slower and more expensive, leading to sloppy and avoidable lab mistakes that could have dangerous consequences.

"What we can say is that this is slowing down scientific progress," Harris explains.

"If scientists paid attention to many of these avoidable errors, science would move forward faster."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by Calgary network producer Michael O'Halloran.