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April 21, 2017

Dr. Stossel Corrects a Common Misconception

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Thomas P. Stossel, MD, MD (Hon), is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School, who has recently published several articles on how to remove barriers to medical innovation, and how medical innovation actually happens. This article highlights the impressive research by Dr. Stossel, supporting his position that private investment does much more to push the progress of medicine along than people think.

One article, published in the Wall Street Journal on January 5, 2017, addressed the assumption that “the root of all medical innovation is university research, primarily funded by federal grants.” He noted that the assumption is incorrect and that it is the “private economy, not the government,” that “actually discovers and develops most of the insights and products that advance health.”

The article opens with complimenting Congress for passing the 21st Century Cures Act, claiming that it “will promote medical innovation,” while at the same time telling readers to be “wary, however, of the $4 billion budget boost that the law gives to the National Institutes of Health.” In addition to his Wall Street Journal article, Dr. Stossel wrote a more in-depth article in National Affairs, arguing the same points, with more research and information embedded into the article. 

There were few findings in medical science that could significantly improve health until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with innovation primarily coming from “physicians in universities and research institutes that were supported by philanthropy.” Dr. Stossel notes, however, that things changed after World War II when the National Institutes of Health became the major backer of medical research, changing incentives. Universities that previously lacked research operations started to develop them, and existing programs were largely expanded. As noted in Dr. Stossel’s article in National Affairs, “for decades, Congress allocated generous and growing funds to the NIH that enabled it to provide many research grants to universities. As a result, universities expanded their laboratory facilities and research faculties — and the government-academic biomedical complex, or GABC, was born.”

Since that time, improvements in health have rapidly occurred. Also during that period, funding for the National Institutes of Health has lagged behind the growth of an aging population in need of medical innovation while private investment in medicine has largely kept pace with the aging population and “is the principal engine for advancement.”

In his National Affairs article, Dr. Stossel discussed research papers submitted for publication, noting:

Although revered by academics as a quality filter, “peer review” of research papers submitted for publication (and of grants for research funding) is a flawed enterprise. As scientific journals found success in providing researchers the priority and credit they were looking for, the volume of submissions began to exceed the supply of journals’ publication space. The practice of peer review — having selected experts render opinions regarding the quality of articles submitted to journals — was designed to solve that problem. Today, electronic publication has eliminated the space problem, but a prestige hierarchy of journals has replaced it with a false scarcity. Researchers covet attention in the most prestigious journals, and the high-profile journals sustain their elevated status by arbitrarily rejecting the majority of articles submitted to them. The monopoly power of these journals, fueled by researchers’ vanity, allows indifferent editors to delay decisions about whether to publish research articles until dueling authors and reviewers come to a resolution. The referees of these disputes provide a quality of service that would be expected from the nature of the reviewers: anonymous, unpaid cronies or competitors of a paper’s authors. As a result, research data can languish in obscurity for months or years while authors work their way down the prestige pecking order and finally obtain a place to publish.

According to Dr. Stossel, more than 80% of new drug approvals originate from work solely performed in private companies and such drug approvals come on average 16 years after the beginning of clinical trials, which typically cost $2.5 billion from start to finish. Therefore, it appears even if academics and NIH really wanted to create a new drug, economic reality would get in the way.

The National Affairs article notes that, “achieving innovation requires wanting to innovate more than trying to impress reviewers of research papers or grant applications. It involves trial-and-error efforts that academic-review committees dismiss as “fishing expeditions” and that violate the scholarly premium on ‘hypothesis-driven’ studies. Success in academe also demands sticking to one’s research ‘brand.’ By contrast, innovation usually requires shifting gears to employ different technologies and experimental approaches. Such inconsistency reliably leads grant-application reviewers to discount an applicant’s qualifications.”

Dr. Stossel closes his Wall Street Journal article by stating:

Despite its exaggerated role, basic research in universities does advance human knowledge, train scientists, and contribute to medical advances—albeit uncommonly and inefficiently. But the system is unsustainable. A better approach would be to encourage academics to join with industry, where the financial resources and drive to innovate reside. Unfortunately, the biomedical complex demonizes corporations. If academic institutions stopped demeaning the activities needed to develop medical products, industry might take a greater interest in supporting their research.

Great advances in health care have been made, but there are still important challenges, from obesity to dementia. One step toward addressing them would be for Washington to adopt the right approach to medical innovation—and to stop simply throwing money at the current inefficient system.

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