Isaac Newton famously said that “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” It’s a crucial point. Scientists discover new things by building on facts established by those who came before.
But what if the science that laid the groundwork for new discoveries … was wrong? In this week’s episode, we explore what some have come to call the “crisis of reproducibility” plaguing the world of scientific research. Way more than you’d expect, scientific papers that were once presented as fact are taken back. The blog Retraction Watch, created by STAT contributors Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus, exists solely to shine the spotlight on these retractions.
This lack of reproducibility in science is an open source of consternation in the pharmaceutical industry, where many people feel they can no longer rely on basic findings from academia. Researchers at Bayer and other drug companies have reported dismal success rates trying to reproduce studies in cancer, women’s health, and cardiovascular disease — in some cases as low as 11 percent.
For biotech venture capitalist Bruce Booth, that terrible success rate makes placing a bet on a new scientific discovery an incredibly risky investment. That’s why he spends hundreds of thousands of dollars double-checking the science for reproducibility upfront, and takes his time before pressing his foot on the gas in drug development. Even if that means getting beaten to the punch by another investor.
“There are a lot of great ideas in science,” says Booth. “And so if we miss a few great ideas early on but in general reduce our false positive rates, I’d say that is a recipe for very attractive venture returns.”
In the world of biotech and pharmaceuticals, investors know the odds are stacked against them. Only about one out of 10 drugs that enters clinical trials ends up as an FDA-approved medicine. Drugs that appear safe in the first few patients begin to appear unsafe after they are taken by a lot of people. Molecules sometimes fail for mysterious reasons.
Is science suffering from a reproducibility crisis? How do we really know what we know?
Listen to the last episode of the podcast: Two drugs, and the boys’ lives they might save
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The Signal podcast is produced by Katie Hiler.