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Friday, December 13, 2013

Zuckerbergs Nobel Prize in Life Sciences

I don't like honors either. From the Cargo Cult perspective, awards can be given in spite of the arrival of cargo. Imagine an award given to the tribesmen of Vanuatu for best ceremonial dance or best costume. The real award for the tribe would be the cargo. Without the cargo, an award will assuage the tribe and make them feel as though the leaders know what is being done right and what is being done wrong. The truth is that the leaders of Vanuatu do not know right from wrong, as we do in the west. They do not know what makes an airplane fly. Any such award ceremony would simply be another cargo cult ceremony. The people who decide on the winners of any award sell themselves as the deciders of good and bad. That in itself would be a great honor, to be able to tell the world what really matters.

Mark Zuckerberg and Co. have used their money to bestow an award to scientists. The Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences is no doubt an award that the Silicon Valley gurus hope will solidify their names in the annals of scientific history. The judges who pick the winners will be the previous winners. The first 11 winners were selected by the founders, I assume. You can bet that there is quite a stir among the Nobel committee members over an award given by a group of Silicon Valley rich kids. Who gave these guys the right to create a life sciences prize? Money? Will there be an overlap of Nobel Prize winners and Breakthrough Prize in Life Science winners? Are they suppose to be on par with one another? Money-wise, the new kids on the block offer a better payday. Oh my.

The prize comes with a $3M paycheck, meant to excite young people about a career in science.
The prize is administered by the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences Foundation, a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to advancing breakthrough research, celebrating scientists and generating excitement about the pursuit of science as a career.

The next generation of scientists, like the current, is suppose to strive for science that is exciting at the fame and fortune level. The boring details of daily lab work will not get you this prize. The boring narrative of a failed experiment or failed idea will not get you the $3M. It must be exciting, breakthrough and worthy of an award, as decided by others who pursued and won the prize. You must be one of them. In terms laid out from The Amgen Study, you must tell "the best story".

According to the Begley, Ellis paper in Nature:

Some non-reproducible preclinical papers had spawned an entire field, with hundreds of secondary publications that expanded on elements of the original observation, but did not actually seek to confirm or falsify its fundamental basis. More troubling, some of the research has triggered a series of clinical studies — suggesting that many patients had subjected themselves to a trial of a regimen or agent that probably wouldn't work.

This is the kind of research that wins awards unfortunately. If you can spawn an entire field, people are going to take notice. It is known in the scientific community that you can spawn an entire field with a good story, not necessarily good science.

You will not see an award for people who sacrifice their own careers by retracting papers when necessary. You won't see whistle blowers get an award for jeopardizing their careers for the best interest of science. There is no award for "Most Reproducible" or "Best Designed Experiment".
As pointed out in the Begley, Eliis study:
In studies for which findings could be reproduced, authors had paid close attention to controls, reagents, investigator bias and describing the complete data set. For results that could not be reproduced, however, data were not routinely analysed by investigators blinded to the experimental versus control groups. Investigators frequently presented the results of one experiment, such as a single Western-blot analysis. They sometimes said they presented specific experiments that supported their underlying hypothesis, but that were not reflective of the entire data set. There are no guidelines that require all data sets to be reported in a paper; often, original data are removed during the peer review and publication process.
Scientific research that is reproducible, where authors pay close attention to controls and their own biases, is not part of the criteria for a publication, promotion or an award. It is good for your science but it is also a risk. What if your work is not reproducible, as was the case in 90% of the papers looked into by the Begley and Ellis in the Amgen Study? As we learned, nothing will happen. You can still get published, promoted and awarded a prize.

Therein is where we need to see a prize. Take $33M and set up a laboratory where a group of scientists accept "nominations". If you think you've got something that can stand the rigors of another group of scientists looking to poke holes in your theories and evidence, throw your name into the hat. The judges will judge based on communication of ideas, transfer of science, reproducibility and for potential. It is not important what a group of rich kids from Silicon Valley think of your narrative. That is only a story selected on a political level by award committee and their awardees. Something greater than them is happening in science and they are not worthy take interject themselves into this world with another million dollar prize. If only they would use the money for the good of everyone in science and set up a Begley/Ellis-like organization. Select 50 papers to test each year. Award those that are reproducible. Give booby prizes to those that are not.

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