Why aren’t we researching new problems in toxicology?

June 13, 2016 at 6:21 pm | Posted in Feature Articles, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A “Matthew Effect” in
the research agenda

Street lamps w900 - Marcus Quigmire - Flickr

Two papers published in the last month have argued that the way toxicology research is incentivised is actively countering the discipline’s ability to produce the sort of research which is useful for preventing harm to health from chemical pollutants.

In one of the papers (Sobek et al. 2016), researchers from Stockholm find that Swedish scientists engaged in environmental monitoring tend to look for chemicals they know they will find, most commonly look for legacy pollutants such as dioxins and PCBs, and have left 98% of REACH-registered chemicals uninvestigated.

Although monitoring legacy pollutants is important, there is a question as to how much of this needs to be done and how it ought to be organised; and the major problem is that, if nobody is looking into emerging substances, how is anyone going to identify the next major pollution problem?

The second paper, “Paracelsus Revisited” (Grandjean 2016) laments how the demands for documentation, replication and reinforcement of existing findings, coupled with other determinants of research priorities among academics (such as feasibility of the study, availability of funding and pace of publication) are contributing to inertia and inflexibility in toxicological research.

The worry expressed in both papers is that, while established hazards become ever-better understood, new hazards are too-rarely investigated: in effect, academic research spends too much time investigating the ground illuminated by the street lamps, but not enough on increasing the amount of ground which is lit up.

To illustrate the problem, of the environmental chemicals identified as a top research priority by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2006, barely any have been covered by academic research even today, while the Swedish Research Council for the Environment only funded three scientific research projects with the aim of identifying emerging contaminants.

Somehow, the way research is incentivised needs to change, so that the determinants of research priorities stop militating against the fundamental objectives of toxicology. This is going to be difficult, as many of the drivers of research present catch-22s. For example, if researchers are not looking for a chemical or assessing its health effects, there is no data to justify regulatory action; yet, regulatory action is a significant driver of the research which produces this data in the first place.

Overcoming what both papers describe as a “Matthew Effect” in research will require careful investigation of the mechanisms by which research objectives are prioritised, and (above all) imaginative interventions which will break the feedback loops that result in too much time being spent on activities which might be effective for keeping a research unit a going concern, but which do not service the big picture of toxicology.

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