I’ll see your $1.7 billion and raise you $3.7 billion

I once heard about a budget problem at a huge organization where some accountant forgot to include a minus sign in a spreadsheet somewhere. The error propagated from budget to budget over the course of years, until it was finally uncovered when an outside firm was hired to do a full audit of the organization’s finances.

Funny thing, the difference between +$50 million and -$50 million is, well, $100 million. Oops.

That story came to mind this week when Congress came out with its budget for the NIH and other science agencies. At least in this case it went the other way. “Oh, you want a minus sign before that $1.7 billion? Yeah, we’ll just swap it out with a plus sign and round to the nearest billion.”

There’s a lot of great stuff in there, like $100 million for increased funding for the opioid crisis. Alzheimer’s and antibiotic resistance research also get significant bumps. Great stuff, assuming the money gets spent well. We’ll call it a win.

Of course, not everyone is happy. The White House, for one, Wired Magazine, for another. Adam Rogers at Wired makes some good points. “budgets are statements of priorities […and] If you really wanted to make a dent in quality of life and the incidence of disease, you’d focus on prevention.” He takes a subtle-ish shot at lobbyists (easy target, that) working for the pharmaceutical, hospital, health professional and health services industries. Look, we get it. Lobbying is bad when it goes against our preferred policies, a noble cause when aligned with our ideals (and, of course, in the latter case never called “lobbying.”) And yes, it would be great — in fact it’s critical — to get better policies in place around prevention and not just treatment. Heck, that’s a big part of the underlying premise of Health:Further. How do we make society healthier in the first place, before people need blood pressure meds and surgery?

Again, though, let’s take some wins where we can get them. It looks like the funding situation is far better, and far more of a compromise, than President Trump’s proposal. We’ll start there and then keep working on avoiding diabetes in the first place. We should also probably work on convincing the White House that even if cuts are necessary, a “blunt budget ax” isn’t the right approach. Even with funding apparently safe, researchers are still understandably concerned for the long-term outlook. Scientific and medical organizations are encouraging members to call their representatives to make sure the money doesn’t dry up and the increase goes through. Perfect stability doesn’t exist on this planet, but a little less uncertainty couldn’t hurt.

This saga is also a good reminder that, as important as the President is around here, there are still branches (plural) of government for checks and balances. Even if we’re not operating at optimum efficiency, we haven’t blown up yet.

It’s worth noting that, as of the moment this article is posted, Congress looks to be less than 24 hours away from voting on the Republican’s AHCA. And Speaker Ryan has said publicly that he thinks he has enough votes to get it passed this time. We’ll wait to see what actually transpires before commenting further.

With Imaginary Friends Like These…

In other science-related news, there was an, um, unfortunate situation in the academic research world this past week. While tens of thousands of scientists across the globe were marching in support of science and the value of actual data, an academic publisher was retracting over 100 papers for fraud. Oops.

When a lab submits a paper for publication, they also submit several names of people in the field qualified to review it and recommend publication, rejection or revision to the editor. So the goal is to find people who are honest and qualified, prepared to give a fair hearing to the work and not let politics or personal stuff get in the way. In short, when it’s used appropriately — and it usually is — peer review strengthens the research community and in the long run helps bring new advances to help patients.

In addition, peer-reviewed papers are the currency of the scientific community. More papers in better journals means more grant funding and better shots at coveted faculty positions and tenure. Publish or perish, as they say.

The problem is that alternative facts should have no place in science. Obviously. However, like any other field or industry, scientific research isn’t immune to malfeasance and negligence. Fake data or poorly-vetted data ends up in the cannon. Down the road, when translational researchers or pharma companies are looking through the literature for background on a new advance, that bad data contributes to sending them in the wrong direction. It’s not that a single bad paper is going to wreck development of a new cancer drug on its own, but the collective weaknesses in the historical dataset can cause problems. (There’s also the issue of a lack of reproducibility in science, but that’s a separate conversation.)

With that as background, here’s the story: Springer, one of the largest publishers in the world, pulled 107 papers from Tumor Biology a couple of weeks ago. Turns out that the peer review process the papers had undergone prior to publication was fake. Considering that peer review is the foundation on which the entire basic science edifice is built, this is kinda a big deal.

The authors (or a company hired by authors to help with the submission/acceptance process), submitted the names of real scientists but included email addresses that routed to other people. Some of the reviewers might have been completely faked, but that’s harder to pull off. Either way, the reviews came back positive — shocking! — and the papers were published. Imaginary friends for the win.

A big deal but not the first time it’s happened. This is just the largest haul of fake reviews found to date (the Retraction Watch article linked above is titled “A New Record”). Two other examples of mass retractions took place in March and August of 2015 (43 and 64 papers, respectively), with the total suspected to be around 450.

Fortunately, when Tumor Biology and Springer found out about the problem a couple of years ago, they implemented new procedures to root out the offenders. Therefore, while this is concerning, it’s A) a tiny percentage of the papers that are published annually and B) a problem publishers and the honest scientific community are working to eliminate.

It’s definitely worth scientists being open about the issues of reproducibility and fraud (again, to be clear, those are two totally different issues) as they promote their work, extoll the virtues and benefits of research, and advocate for funding through events like the March for Science. Hopefully problems like this don’t create defensiveness but instead serve as a chance to educate the public on the scientific process and how real discoveries lead to innovations in health. Transparency is good.

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