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See Inside Scientific American Volume 307, Issue 6

The Human Factor in Innovation

brain, alzheimer's



Bryan Christie

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For hundreds of years people have used the scientific process to build a better future, one step at a time. This year is no exception, as you will see in our cover story and annual appreciation of innovation, “World Changing Ideas,” beginning on page 34. The section celebrates ideas as they emerge from the lab to make a practical difference in our lives.

As is usual, strong themes emerge across the developments. As technologies have woven our lives together ever more intricately, our opportunities to take advantage of scale grow commensurately. Consider the “big data” sifting of anonymized information from our innumerable mobile phones to improve services. As the distinctions between technology and biology continue to blur, we note the arrival of bandagelike wearable sensors, blood-sugar-powered pacemakers and synthetic life built with XNA instead of DNA. In health care, tomorrow's medicines look to prevent ailments before they can occur, such as pills to block the onset of Alzheimer's and genome sequencing of fetuses.

A natural consequence of the advances propelled forward by our ingenuity, however, is that they are also subject to our very human foibles. For instance, without the support of pharmaceutical companies, researchers could never get their ideas to market. Genentech, laudably, is funding a large portion of the $100-million trials for Alzheimer's prevention drugs; if the company is successful, the work will benefit many millions of people—including patients and their families. Yet in other ways, money from Big Pharma could be exerting an influence on supposedly independent research.

Starting on page 56, journalist Charles Seife explores that important question in his feature article, “Is Drug Research Trustworthy?” He traces the intricate flow of money from drugmakers to medical researchers whose work could benefit those companies, creating conflicts of interest that could, in the worst cases, endanger patients' well-being. The financial support expresses itself in such ways as payments for conference speaking and travel, ghostwritten papers for journals, and consulting fees. To find out what is going on, Seife filed Freedom of Information Act requests over many months and even a lawsuit. The picture he paints of entanglements between companies and researchers is a troubling one—made more so by our institutions' current inability to grapple properly with the matter. We hope his story will inspire the conversations necessary to solve the problem of conflicted science.

This article was originally published with the title "The Human Factor."

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