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June 27, 2017

Defending Biomedical Science in an Era of Threatened Funding

Author Affiliations
  • 1Departments of Medicine, Health Research and Policy, Biomedical Data Science, and Statistics, Stanford University, Stanford, California
  • 2Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford (METRICS), Stanford University, Stanford, California
JAMA. 2017;317(24):2483-2484. doi:10.1001/jama.2017.5811

Supporting scientific research should be a top priority of any society that aims to make progress and thrive. Reducing funding for research will adversely affect individual and population health. However, mounting pressure for budget cuts for major science agencies is an unfortunate reality. How can the medical community, other scientists, and the public defend science better under these circumstances? Can this challenge be used as an opportunity for reform?

The most common narrative used in defending science highlights its major successes. However, a facile “everything is great, science is omnipotent” narrative is problematic. It creates an infallible image of science that can become as dogmatic as its critics. The major strength of science is not in being always perfect, but in correcting mistakes, fallacies, and misconceptions using the best evidence and critical thinking. Creating an illusion of scientific perfection confounds what is known with certainty and what is tentative. For example, it is known with high certainty that measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination is very useful; that tobacco causes millions of deaths; and that climate change has major consequences for health and society in general. However, the public is bombarded by the results of studies that often are subsequently overturned and press releases that often are inaccurate,1 and then the public may erroneously think that even more certain scientific facts are untrue. Thus, instead of claiming perfection, scientists should be accurate about what is known vs what is presumed; acknowledge errors and not oversell findings; and embrace reform when reform is needed.