Productivity in the biomedical sciences has exploded in the past 50 years in the United States and globally, with more than a million papers now published each year by an even larger number of scientists. Yet dramatic growth in funding and knowledge has not been matched by a similar impact on U.S. public health. That’s the conclusion of a provocative new analysis from researchers who worry that poor research practices are hindering progress.
Microbiologist Arturo Casadevall and M.D./Ph.D. student Anthony Bowen gathered data on what they call “inputs” and “outputs” since 1965—annual inflation–adjusted U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) budgets, papers added to the PubMed database, and the number of paper authors. They then compared the trends to outcomes, such as the number of new molecules approved by the U.S government for use as drugs, and gains in life expectancy.
They found that the NIH budget grew exponentially until flattening in the past decade, that annual publications have grown sixfold, and the number of authors has grown ninefold. In contrast, the total number of new drugs approved has merely doubled (see graph). And gains in U.S. life expectancy have been steady but modest, they report today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Casadevall, who recently moved from the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York City to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and Bowen of the Albert Einstein School of Medicine, offer some reasons for the decline in what they term the “efficiency” of biomedical research. For example, one widely cited argument for the slowdown in new drugs is that companies have already tackled the easiest diseases and targets. But the authors also point to problems within academic research, from mouse studies that aren’t relevant to humans to irreproducible results that they blame on the pressure to publish more papers and get them into high-impact journals.
“Our results are best interpreted as a cautionary tale,” Bowen and Casadevall write, and could undermine public confidence in science. They hope their findings will “motivate new efforts to understand the parameters that influence the efficiency of science and its ability to translate discovery into practical applications.”