One of the most startling changes in the world of higher education over my time in it, which was fifty years, is the growth of research. When I began as an undergraduate in 1954 the word was hardly used. Our lecturers talked about ‘knowledge’ and ‘learning’, but not about ‘research’ — well, not very much. The Murray Committee in 1958 and the Martin Committee in 1963 were exercised about the lack of people who had been educated past a first degree, and in 1964 the Menzies Government set up the Australian Research Grants Committee, which provided university staff with an opportunity to obtain money to carry out research which they would like to do, and seemed at least interesting.
Earlier, in 1958, the same government had established the Commonwealth Postgraduate Scholarship Scheme, to enable university students to study for the masters degree or the PhD, which was itself a relatively new qualification, the first such degree in Australia having been awarded in 1947. I won one of those scholarships in 1958, and it changed my life. I had been preparing to become a high school teacher, and became instead an academic, with a strong record and interest in this new activity called research. Given my background, I can say that in my opinion the emphasis on research has distorted the university, and I gave a speech in England in 1990 saying so, a speech which was widely reported. That theme is for another time.
In this essay I concentrate on the prevalence of research in contemporary society, which is significant. I am not opposed to it at all, but we need to treat ‘research’ with something less than the awe that tends to accompany it in news telecasts. So many news items begin with the words ‘Research shows’, or ‘New research has discovered’ or ‘Research has found’ — as though what is about to be discussed is the last word on the matter. I would much prefer ‘Research suggests that…’ Very often, as with a recent announcement by the CSIRO, there is no new research at all, but simply some advocacy based on already existing research. That research too is suggestive rather than final.
Indeed there is nothing final ever about research findings. They are always a contribution to what we know, and very often they are not even correct. A recent comment in Nature has captured this perfectly. Jim Woodgett, a life scientist in Toronto, has written a heartfelt plea for scientists to lift their game:
‘The scientific community must be diligent in highlighting abuses, develop greater transparency and accessibility for its work, police research more effectively and exemplify laudable behaviour. This includes encouraging more open debate about misconduct and malpractice, exposing our dirty laundry and welcoming external examination.’
I might add that those who write about science and research in the mainstream media should take careful note. Why is all this necessary? Because, Woodgett says, ‘Those of us who work in the life sciences are discovering that some of our basic premises are flawed or inaccurate — cell lines have been misidentified and drug metabolism in animal models misjudged. Even high-profile findings have been questioned… Is it a surprise that clinical translation fails so often?’
This is serious stuff. He goes on: ‘The inherent uncertainty of research provides a safe haven for data omission, manipulation or exaggeration. Because interpretation of data is an imperfect science, there are few consequences for those tempted to oversell their findings. On the contrary, such faulty embellishment can help to determine whether a study is published — and where.’
He thinks far too many poor articles are published, and that the result is a mess: ‘we must ensure that our own house is in order’. He is talking about the life sciences. I would apply his strictures to climate science, where science has been contaminated by politics and a kind of religious fervour.
Woodgett is not the only scientist to speak out, and it is refreshing that his call was published in Nature. Another to have written like this is John Ioannidis, and again in the life sciences. He thinks that much research has been contaminated by the pressure from drug companies to build a bigger market for their products, but his great contribution has been to redo the research that was said to be critical. He discovered that few had ever done any replication, and set out to do some, building a team of young enthusiasts to help him. The results were startling.
He and his team analysed 49 of the most highly regarded research findings in medicine over the previous 13 years. Of them, 45 claimed to have uncovered effective interventions. The team retested 34 of these claims and showed that 14 of them, or 41 percent, were wrong or exaggerated. He thinks that 90 per cent of the research that doctors rely on is flawed.
If you want to find out more about Ioannidis, there is a long essay in The Atlantic Monthly about him and his work, and his important paper ‘Why Most Published Research Findings are False’ is easily accessible through what the ABC likes to refer to as ‘your favourite search engine’.
Together, these statements by Woodgett and Ioannidis tell us that all is not right in the world of research, and in my view there is a strong case for action within the research community and, if necessary, by government, which is after all, by far the largest funder, as well as a significant user, of all the research that is generated.
Think about it when you next hear a news presenter tell us about a new ‘breakthrough’ in medical research or a new warning about climate change.