UC Davis Lecture by Science Journalist Richard Harris: Why You Shouldn't Miss This

Oct 20, 2017

"Biomedical science was not always the hypercompetitive rat race that is has become in recent years. Consider the story of Charles Darwin, as he developed his theory of evolution through natural selection. That discovery became the organizing principle of biology. And the story of how it arose bears almost no resemblance to the way biology and medicine advance today. Darwin spent decades gathering observations and gathering his thoughts….He pored over collections of insects...”

So begins National Public Radio science journalist Richard Harris in his chapter, “Broken Culture," in his newly published book, Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope and Wastes Billions.

Darwin was driven by curiosity; he didn't start out with a “coherent hypothesis,” Harris says. Plus, Darwin "had no need to hustle for money,” and "he was in no hurry to publish his discoveries.”

Today the “high pressure of competition can tempt even the best scientists into dangerous territory,” Harris warns in his 278-page book.

You can hear what Harris says about sloppy science/faulty research when he travels from his home in Washington, D.C. to the University of California, Davis, campus to deliver a Storer Lecture.

Harris will speak on “Common Errors that Bedevil Biomedical Research and How to Fix Them,” from 4:10 to 5 p.m., on Wednesday, Oct. 25 in the UC Davis Student Community Center. The event is free and open to the public. A book signing will follow the lecture.

The lectureship, established in 1960, is funded through a gift from Professor Tracy I. Storer and Dr. Ruth Risdon Storer to bring eminent biologists to the UC Davis campus. Speakers have included Nobel laureates, members of the National Academy of Science and acclaimed authors in the life sciences and medicine.

“Richard Harris has written a very important and unsettling book based on his careful investigation of the biomedical research enterprise,” said Mark Winey, distinguished professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology and dean of the College of Biological Sciences, UC Davis, who is hosting the journalist. “We can expect an intriguing and thought provoking lecture.”

In his book, Harris relates that American taxpayers spend $30 billion annually funding biomedical research. “We all rely on biomedical research for new treatments and cures,” Harris points out. “But this critical enterprise is not in the best of health itself.  Most experimental treatments fail. One reason is that the underlying research does not hold up to scrutiny. Scientists find that far too often that they are unable to repeat experiments that other researchers have carried out.”

By some estimates, half of the results from these studies can't be replicated elsewhere—the science is simply wrong, Harris asserts.

The national award-winning science journalist, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, has covered science, medicine and the environment for NPR Radio since 1986. A graduate of UC Santa Cruz with a bachelor's degree in biology, he began his journalism career as a reporter for the Livermore (Calif.) Tri-Valley Herald. He later joined the San Francisco Examiner as a science writer. He is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers and the Northern California Science Writers' Association.

We just finished reading Rigor Mortis today. It's not only an eye opener, but a call to action. It's as easy to read as a well-documented and detailed newspaper investigative piece, complete with patient and researcher interviews and anecdotes. It zeroes in on “the constant scramble for research dollars” and the fact that scientists' “promotions and tenure depend on their making splashy discoveries.”  Sadly, it's often quantity over quality in the "publish-or-perish" world of academia.

Harris writes about egregious research, targeting cancer, heart disease, Lou Gehrig's disease, diabetes, and other diseases--diseases that can and do affect us all, either through taxpayer funding or personal/family/friend experiences.

Charles Darwin was in no hurry to publish his discoveries. Neither should today's researchers. We can and must do better.

(Editor's Note: The presentation will be recorded for later viewing. Joanna Chiu, associate professor and vice chair, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, is coordinating the Storer Lectureships in Life Sciences for the academic year. She may be reached at jcchiu@ucdavis.edu)