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Can Vet J. 2010 October; 51(10): 1061–1064.
PMCID: PMC2942043

Medical science and society

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More than ever, we are a society that looks to science to find technical solutions to our problems. And, science has done very well in that regard. However, there are many aspects of the science-society connection that are not well understood by society at large and many areas that require careful consideration by the community of scientists.

The generation of scientific research typically begins with the development of a research proposal that is submitted to a public or private organization that funds research. Increasingly funding is obtained from a combination of public and private sources. The funding of scientific research is an area with a great deal of controversy, especially when it comes to public funding.

For a long time university researchers had a portfolio in which much of the research was basic curiosity-driven research for which the pay-off would be far into the future. Industry would develop the findings from the basic research so that they could be applied in areas such as diagnosis, prevention and treatment of disease. In the past 2 decades there has been increasing pressure for university researchers to engage in translational research (the translation of scientific discovery into practical application) and to work towards commercialization of discoveries. Agencies want to see the payoff and they want to see it now. However, there is a problem with an overemphasis on this approach, as discoveries typically arise from exploration of basic science. The roots, namely new knowledge and better understanding, need to be nurtured if we are to harvest the fruits.

The route to scientific discovery is often circuitous and difficult to predict. There is an understandable expectation that if we identify the target and provide brilliant scientists with the resources then we will hit the target and do so in a reasonable time. However, complexity often gets in the way. Complexity includes unknown information, erroneous published information, moving targets, and unexpected new information.

If we examine the successes that have come from science we will find some clues to guide us. Serendipity — researchers working away at one problem and making a fortuitous observation that becomes life-changing — seems to play a big role. The researcher does need to recognize the significance of her/his observation. The story of the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming is one well known example of serendipity in medical discovery. Interestingly, as is often the case, the stage for the understanding of this chance discovery was set by others (1).

Other interesting serendipitous discoveries include recognition of the anti-malarial properties of quinine by Peruvian Indians before the 17th century, X-rays, Viagra, chlorpromazine, cisplatin, anaphylaxis, and melatonin (2). The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) by Kary Mullis was a recent important chance discovery that has revolutionized molecular genetics and resulted in numerous practical applications of this technique (3).

The scientists who generate the information, materials, techniques, genetically engineered organisms, often have little say in the use to which the discovery is put. Big business and government, with the resources to develop the potential, usually determine what happens to the scientific findings. In this connection, big pharma is often blamed for a variety of ills including investing where money can be made even when this involves a “me-too” drug, helping to create new diseases to match a new drug, promoting excessive use of drugs, and inappropriate sponsorships.

This behavioral pattern is not unique to the pharmaceutical industry. The driver behind these behaviors is the return on shareholders’ investment. We all need to become more involved in ensuring that there is a reasonable balance between this driver and the needs of society at large. Government has an important role to play as it develops policies that affect both funding of research and regulation of corporate activities. However, the leadership in effecting change through influencing both government policy and industry behavior must come from the scientific society in general and the medical community in particular. It is noteworthy that a number of editorials in Canadian medical publications have been forthright in highlighting concerns about some actions of the pharmaceutical industry (46). The pharmaceutical industry is a major contributor to health care and it is important that the medical community develop an appropriate relationship with it.

Footnotes

Use of this article is limited to a single copy for personal study. Anyone interested in obtaining reprints should contact the CVMA office (gro.vmca-amvc@nothguorbh) for additional copies or permission to use this material elsewhere.

References

1. Slowiczek F, Peters PM. Discovery, Chance and the Scientific Method. [Last accessed July 30, 2010]. Available from http://www.accessexcellence.org/AE/AEC/CC/chance.php.
2. Krock L. Accidental discoveries. [Last accessed July 30, 2010]. Available from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/cancer/discoveries.html.
3. Polymerase Chain Reaction. The PCR method — a copying machine for DNA molecules. [Last accessed July 30, 2010]. Available from http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/1993/illpres/pcr.html.
4. Kondro W, Sibbald B. Drug company experts advised staff to withhold data about SSRI use in children. CMAJ. 2004;170:783. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
5. Editorial: What’s wrong with CME? CMAJ. 204;170:917. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
6. Steinman MA, Baron RB. Is continuing medical education a drug-promotion tool?: YES. Can Fam Physician. 2007;53:1650–1653. [PMC free article] [PubMed]

Articles from The Canadian Veterinary Journal are provided here courtesy of Canadian Veterinary Medical Association