Science 4 Sale?

A recent email gave me hope that innocence was not dead yet. The sender, a scientist, waxed indignant that I suggested in a recent column that the source of funding can affect the results of experiments. She assured me that the scientific method is strong enough to resist any such pressure.

Imagine my dismay, then, when I saw a study in tonight’s issue of PLoS Medicine which found that the identity of the sponsor of a study of the effectiveness of statins, the blockbuster cholesterol-lowering drugs, affected the study’s conclusions. Specifically, in nearly 200 head-to-head comparisons of statins such as Lipitor or Crestor or Mevacor, the results were more likely to favor the sponsor’s product than the competition: in 66 percent of the studies the sponsor’s drug came out ahead, compared to 10 percent in which the competitor’s drug did. (Other studies were government-funded.)

Why the disparity? Not clear, admit Lisa Bero and colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco. One possibility is that drug companies choose lower dosages for the comparison drug. A more likely one, it seems to me, is the file-drawer effect: if the results aren’t what you hoped, instead of writing it up and sending it off for publication in a medical journal you just file it away, never again to see the light of day (or print). Read it for yourself, here (the PLoS journals have the enlightened policy of making all their papers free; no subscription or per-article fee required). I especially liked this graph:

Maybe it’s not innocence that isn’t dead . . . but naivety.