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A Better Mouse Trap

In response to:

The Strange Case of the Spotted Mice from the April 15, 1976 issue

To the Editors:

Imagine the furor if Jerry Ford, reviewing All the President’s Men, had asked “Does this point to something deeply wrong with the present system of campaign funding—to something which, for the protection of the public, should be remedied right away?” and had then answered “I should say not.”

Yet P.B. Medawar, reviewing a book about the “little Watergate” at the Sloan-Kettering Institute asks a similar question (substitute “research funding” for “campaign funding”) and gives this bland—but patently false—answer. Medawar’s role at SKI is rather like Ford’s in Watergate. Although innocent of any sins of commission, he is nevertheless up to his ears in this mess.

The members of the Board of Scientific Consultants at SKI, including Medawar, failed (like congressional oversight committees) to do their job. Yet Medawar vigorously defends the so-called “peer review” process which not only included the internal review of this Board but a whole series of external reviews by granting agencies. He fails to recognize that the failure of peer review at all levels was not just a fraud on a few immunologists but was also a fraud on the public that was paying the bills for this “cancer research.”

Medawar’s admission that “at several critical points I found myself lacking in moral courage” is a less than candid effort to blame himself rather than the sacred “peer review” process. For he is really saying that he knew in his heart that there was faking going on but couldn’t bring himself to battle it out on the Board. Why not? It wasn’t lack of courage but excess of experience. Both he and I have had decades of experience with the peer review process and the hard truth is this: Any scientist who rocks the boat is likely to find that he—and not the guilty party—is the one who is tossed overboard. Nobelist or not, anyone who battles in the public interest and against professional interests quickly becomes a “non-peer” and will be in deep trouble later when he comes up for review.

No great truth about scientific behavior is to be learned from the Summerlin affair except perhaps that it takes all sorts to make the world” is how Medawar dismisses the matter. In this he follows the unwritten law of a professional never to reveal to the public what is really going on inside a profession. For the truth is that this kind of fakery is not an isolated happening but a steadily increasing problem in cancer research. Indeed, it is a problem in every area of science where a smart promoter can grab large chunks of federal cash. The connection with Watergate is not so remote. Big Business, Big Government, and Big Military have tended to institutionalize corruption and the same is true in Big Science.

Big Science is bad science. A generation ago this might have been an isolated event but now there are many areas, “space science” and “cancer viruses” for example, where getting public money under false pretenses is a way of life. For Big Science, however, the wheeling and dealing doesn’t take place in hunting lodges or in hotel suites, it goes on in the privacy of the “peer review” process.

Irwin D.J. Bross

Eggertsville, New York

P.B Medawar replies:

Hixson and Schwartz are of course right to correct my review of Hixson’s mouse book on an important point of fact: NIH did not fund Summerlin; this was a mistake I should not have made, and I regret it.

Dr. Bross’s letter has the bitter resentfulness of a rejected suitor. If he himself has been unlucky with peer reviews and has difficulty in funding his research, then I am very sorry for him. I thought his labored parallel between the Summerlin affair and Watergate an exceptionally feeble one and thought also that he was going out of his way to invite contempt from everyone by suggesting that I was aware of the Summerlin fake all along and concealed my knowledge of it to secure my own position as a “peer.” Poor Dr. Bross; I wonder if he knows what the word “peer” means.

Now as to the peer review system itself: it is imperfect, of course, in very many different ways, but yet infinitely preferable to a system of adjudication by committees of wise old greyheads, most of whom are years out of date without realizing it and are equally unaware that advancing years may have quite seriously impaired their powers of judgment.

I started research under Howard Florey when he was just beginning to develop penicillin. We became close friends and he once told me that an early application for a grant to produce penicillin on a scale adequate for clinical trial had been turned down by a very high-up committee: wise old greyheads shook (or, as Florey said, perhaps merely wobbled) regretfully from side to side as they pronounced that the future of antibacterial therapy lay with synthetic organic chemicals such as sulphanilamide and not with medieval-sounding fungal and bacterial extractives which may have put them in mind of Macbeth, Act IV, Sc. 1. A peer review might not have done better but it is very hard to see how they could have done worse.

I am very glad that my friend Dr. Robert Schwartz’s appraisal of Dr. Good coincides exactly with my own.

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