`Breakthroughs' and `fall throughs' in science research

IT'S a familiar TV scene. The newscast anchor reports excitedly that a biomedical research ``breakthrough'' has opened a promising new approach to curbing some disease. Vignettes from a press conference then show scientists explaining their work while stressing the need for more research. Rarely are there follow-up stories when expected benefits turn sour. Rarely does the evening news show the shamefaced retraction of scientists admitting that their widely hyped ``breakthrough'' was based on fraud, as has recently happened once again.

``Those working on the costly frontiers of modern medicine must maintain their legitimacy and their source of public support,'' observes Cornell University sociologist Dorothy Nelkin. Therefore, she says, ``they seek to control the language and content of biomedical news.''

And they are successful.

With support from a Guggenheim Fellowship and a year as a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation, Nelkin has made an incisive study of the relationships between biomedical science and the media. She lays out her conclusions in the journal Social Research and in the Nov. 20 issue of New Scientist.

Nelkin observes that ``many researchers believe that scholarly communication is no longer sufficient to maintain their enterprise, that national visibility through the mass media is strategically necessary to assure a favorable public image and adequate research support.'' So, she adds, academics who once shunned publicity now ``employ sophisticated public relations techniques and communication controls to manage the news [and] the press is receptive to their efforts.''

As Nelkin notes, this deliberate manipulation of willing and gullible news media ``has significant ethical implications for those of us who want to be accurately and fairly informed about complex technical matters that affect our lives.''

The press is supposed to help guard the public from the machinations of those who distort legitimate biomedical news for their own profit, to say nothing of protecting it from fraud. But health-related ``breakthroughs'' are big news. And most reporters, editors, and producers lack the education and experience-based savvy to handle science news with the informed skepticism that routinely marks political coverage. Journalists, Nelkin observes, ``rely uncritically on scientific sources of information.''

This laid-back attitude toward science news also inhibits vigorous follow-up when the big ``breakthrough'' becomes the big ``fall through.'' Nelkin recalls a 1982 campaign to publicize an arthritis drug. The research was detailed in 6,500 press kits. Some 150 newspapers and television stations reported a significant medical advance. Twelve weeks later, another research report detailed harmful side effects that took the drug off the market. There was little publicity about that.

Such benign neglect occurred again last month when another widely hyped story collapsed. A Harvard University research team had announced in the spring that it had found a naturally occurring molecule that activates a key element in the body's immune system. Even with the arcane name interleukin-4A (IL-4A), the discovery was well publicized as a potential new weapon in the ``war on cancer.'' But in the Nov. 28 issue of Science, the Harvard team retracted its claim. The underlying data had been faked. IL-4A, a team member said, is ``a molecule that doesn't exist.'' This case, which is still under investigation at Harvard, hasn't generated the publicity of the orginal claim.

It would be simplistic to think of the manipulation of biomedical news merely in terms of an inattentive and gullible press and a crafty biomedical community. The high-pressure race for career, money, and glory in biomedical science is matched by an equally high-pressure race for audience, readership, money, and glory in the news business. When the big ``breakthrough'' becomes the big ``story,'' the integrity of both science and journalism suffer. In such a climate, it's little wonder that news media reflect the images the manipulators project.

Nelkin urges medical institutions to ``restrain their promotional tendencies and open their doors to more critical investigation.'' She asks journalists to get the whole story of biomedical science in front of the public. ``It is not enough merely to react to medical events,'' she says.

Those are laudable goals. But they can't be attained as long as career advancement and public image are more important to researchers than their scientific integrity and as long as audience market share and sensational headlines mean more to journalists than getting the story straight.

A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.