Ioannidis: “We need to move away from…big promises. Very little of what we do will be so lucky as to break new ground.”

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Photo by Bill Branson from The NIH Record

In the most recent issue of The NIH Record, which is the biweekly newsletter for employees of the National Institutes of Health, there’s an article about Dr. John Ioannidis, director of the Stanford Prevention Research Center, and someone whose work I’ve recommended to many audiences.

Ioannidis recently spoke at a seminar sponsored by the NIH Office of Disease Prevention, NHLBI, NIAAA and NCI, covering his frequent topic – the biases in published biomedical research. Excerpts:

  • “Most statistically significant findings are not real at all. They’re just false positives.”
  • Ioannidis made nine recommendations for ways to overcome this and other problems of bias in biomedical research. Registration, which is already mandated for clinical trials such as those on H1N1, is a good first step. Registration ensures that trials don’t become “lost” if they are never published. In this way, their results are potentially available to anyone interested in reviewing a more complete set of data on a topic, beyond the mostly positive published reports.
  • Ioannidis noted that researchers are under pressure to produce earth-shaking results before they even begin a project, starting with their grant applications. To get funding, researchers have to play up the novelty and importance of the work they plan to do. Under the weight of the great promises they make, investigators often abandon studies whose results seem uninteresting or selectively report only statistically significant portions of their results.“We need to move away from the requirement to make big promises,” he said. “Very little of what we do will be so lucky as to break new ground.” He suggested that instead of funding specific research projects, NIH and other funding bodies should support individual researchers with a track record of excellence. “Maybe we should promise instead just to do our best,” he said.

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May 21, 2012 at 9:47 am

Wonderful to note Dr. Ioannidis’ perspectives about potential biases and the challenges of evidence-based medicine presented within these venues. His research is a critical component towards greater transparency and the continuing goal of produciing safe and effective medications.