As the year 2016 ends, my first full year in my new role here at NIH, I’d like to reflect on some of the topics covered here on Open Mike. Thanks to our NIH Regional Seminars, I have had the pleasure of hearing feedback from some of you in person, and I am also greatly appreciative of our virtual interactions, through the thoughtful comments posted by blog readers in this space.
Our blog opened on October 19, 2015, when I noted that NIH is an extraordinary success story; even skeptics identify NIH as a government program that works. But at the same time, I also noted that all is not well with the biomedical research enterprise. In many respects, the 50+ blogs that followed have dug deeper into our anxieties and challenges.
The sidebar highlights five major themes arising over the past year or so, and blogs related to those categories. To get a sense of community interest, we have also compiled some reader statistics. Further below, Table 1 shows which blogs, as of December 27, received the most page views, and Table 2 shows which blogs received the most comments.
These themes, your viewership, and your comments reflect realities and concerns voiced within the scientific community. For example, as I have previously discussed on the blog, concerns include the hypercompetition described by Kimble et al., or the misaligned incentives and unintended consequences created by a hypercompetitive climate, as described by Alberts et al. and others.
Thinking more broadly, our blog themes also reflect the realities and concerns of the public as a whole: despite all of the scientific advances that have improved human health thus far, the research enterprise is not producing the “cures” the public yearns for, and at the same time, some science is not conducted with proper rigor and transparency. Questions we must face include: What underlies the “Eroom’s Law” phenomenon where over the last six decades, fewer new pharmaceutical treatments are being produced relative to R&D expenditures? What are the costs, and root causes of irreproducibility in preclinical research, which some suggest occurs in over half of published preclinical studies? What is the evidence that we are adopting best practices for preclinical animal studies, particularly in terms of study design, reporting and publishing guidelines?
As aforementioned, NIH is a success story, a government program that works. Our scientific discoveries capture public interest; we are an essential contributor to major health advances; and we create positive impacts beyond the bench. At the same time, we are scientists, and we want to examine our work and culture with the same thoughtfulness and curiosity with which we explore our gene, protein or disease of interest. In doing so, we reveal insights that help make our research enterprise even greater.
This is why NIH is actively examining and addressing these challenges and concerns as best we can, as reflected in the past year’s posts. Several posts described current and future efforts related to scientific rigor. We’ve also talked about clinical trials – one of the most visible components of NIH, where research intersects with the general public through enrollment of volunteer participants. In two blogs and a JAMA article published this fall, we addressed shortcomings and challenges throughout the lifespan of an NIH-supported clinical trial, and the corresponding NIH efforts which, in combination, intend to ensure rigor and efficiency in the US clinical trial enterprise. Core objectives of NIH’s 2016-2020 strategic plan are to “enhance scientific stewardship” and “excel as a federal science agency by managing for results.” The topics discussed on the Open Mike blog over the past year demonstrate our commitment to furthering these goals in the upcoming years.
Of course we cannot do this alone, and we are grateful for partnerships beyond NIH to make our goals a reality. Funders, professional societies, journal editors, and patient groups are engaged in activities to raise the rigor, quality, transparency, and progress of science. Others are working on better ways to understand how the scientific process works (or doesn’t) and to measure its outcomes. The 21st Century Cures Act has provisions that promise to raise the success of NIH-funded research even further.
Let me take this opportunity to thank you for your interest and feedback and to wish you, your colleagues, and your families all the best for a happy and healthy New Year. I also want to thank my wonderful colleagues at NIH (in the Office of Extramural Research, in the Office of the Director, and in our 27 institutes and centers) for their invaluable help as stewards of NIH’s extramural program. Their work – not just on the initiatives described above, but on the day-to-day operations that are extremely important, yet less highly visible – make NIH’s world-class, robust, and fruitful research program a reality.