This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday & Wednesday.
An organization representing medical researchers believes unpublished work is too shaky to be included in grant applications, yet the world’s most important climate body has long relied on such research.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is “the largest supporter of biomedical research in the world.” In 2016, it decided how $32 billion of US tax dollars should be spent. When a researcher applies for a grant, his or her application is evaluated by a panel of other researchers. Some applications are successful, others are not.
Last week the New Scientist reported that the NIH has been seeking public input about whether researchers should be permitted to include, as part of their grant applications, work that hasn’t yet been published in an academic journal. The article tells us that:
The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), an organization that represents 30 member societies including around 125,000 biomedical researchers, responded unequivocally. “We do not support the inclusion of preprints or interim research products in NIH grant applications…
The FASEB’s full, four-page statement may be downloaded here. It makes several declarations about academic peer review that, in my opinion, are questionable (see this discussion of the shortcomings of the peer review process). But that’s beside the point.
The critical issue is this: In December 2016, it was the position of a reputable scientific body that as-yet-unpublished scientific research is less rigorous, second-class research – and that such research shouldn’t be taken into account when the NIH is considering the relatively mundane matter of whether to give a particular scientist money.
Let’s compare and contrast to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). That UN entity is the most important climate body in the world. Governments point to IPCC reports as the reason the public should believe there’s a climate crisis. It’s because of these reports that we now spend trillions fighting global warming.
I’ve explained previously that, in a single chapter of a recent report, IPCC personnel relied on unpublished research to make their case in 21 separate instances. I’ve also pointed out that, even though another IPCC report had been written and undergone two rounds of peer review by mid-2006, it nevertheless cited 16 scientific papers that weren’t published until May 2007. For more than a decade, therefore, the IPCC has placed its faith in numerous unpublished studies.
One would expect an organization as influential as the IPCC to be acutely concerned about high standards. Instead, it has a long history of embracing unpublished work – a category of research that another part of the scientific community considers unworthy of a grant application.