Thursday, March 19, 2009

Industry versus Academy

Mark sent me this article and I thought that it made an excellent point. Research is not right or wrong depending on the source. In this sense, there is a classic use of the Ad hominem fallacy occurring where we criticize the source of the research and not the content of the research.

I think that this brings up two issues, both important.

1) Transparency: A lot of the issues about epidemiological lie in the fact that methods are not standard or transparent. There is an art to doing an epidemiological study and no good mechanism in place to determine if the results were cherry-picked or the most honest representation of the ata possible.

2) Incentives: Let us be honest, everyone in the research game is motivated (at least in part) by financial incentives. I see a lot of researchers who are also motivated by a genuine desire to help solve serious medical problems. But I do not think that being in academia is a good test for this motivation as people go into industry for a lot of reasons.

But it is, without a doubt, in the best interest of a researcher to find something "interesting". One paper can make or break the transition from post-doctoral fellow to faculty. One paper can make or break a tenure application. This is not to say that fraud is widespread in the academy -- I rather expect that it is extremely rare.

But we are kidding ourselves if we do not admit that everyone with a career in research (whether in industry, government, or the academy) doesn't have at least some incentives to find exciting and interesting results. I think we mostly resist this temptation and focus on giving the most honest appraisal of the data that is possible; but we should never forget that all research can be driven by the rewards of actual discovery.

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