Scientific advances have always been part of our daily life, even if we are oblivious to the specifics. Until recently, scientific discovery has remained within the ivory tower. With the advent of the ‘knowledge age’, there has been dramatically more awareness and interests in scientific achievements beyond academia. However, barriers still exist that hamper public access to scientific discovery and knowledge. Two prominent factors that prevent information from being widely available are costly subscription-based academic journals and the protection of intellectual property in biotech and pharma. As a result, the public tends to turn to popular news media for highlights of cutting-edge discoveries. Unfortunately, the short attention span of mainstream media makes it challenging for the public to fully grasp the significance of scientific discoveries.


At the centre of this issue is the nature of media – it is driven by what is popular and what is desired by the consumers, often at odds with the core values of scientific discoveries. In February 2015, the Toronto Star came under heavy fire from the scientific community by publishing a front-page feature on the “Dark Side of Gardasil”. This investigative article featured anecdotal evidence from three individuals who reported significant side effects after taking the vaccine. Within days, the Canadian healthcare experts wrote a rebuttal, highlighting the safety and efficacy of the HPV vaccine, and condemning the original piece that only served to sensationalize. The scientists emphasized the serious nature of HPV infections as “a very real threat to the health of Canadians” that results in “106,000 patients with cervical lesions that require expensive, painful treatment that can cause infertility and premature birth.” In fact, “380 women [in Canada] die from cervical cancer every year, many of them in the prime of life.” On the other hand, the safety of Gardasil was studied in clinical trials with 29,000 subjects, and was only licensed after the safety study concluded that this drug is safe. In fact, the only, and very rare, serious side effect of HPV vaccines identified was “allergic reactions”. There is no question that the scientists’ expert opinions should outweigh anecdotes. Unfortunately, this submission was tucked away in the Star’s opinion section, and did not receive the same attention as the original investigative article. This is a cautionary tale about the danger of public opinion – once poorly investigated information is established as fact, often based on anecdotes, it is difficult to repair the damage, even with overwhelming peer-reviewed scientific evidence.

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Google search trends for Martin Shkreli between September 2015-April 2016 with most popular events described preceding trend peaks. Adapted from Data Source: Google Trends (www.google.com/trends).

Then there is the case of Martin Shkreli. A previous issue of IMMpress outlined the rise and fall of Martin Shkreli (“Pharma Bro”). His rise to fame was in September 2015 when his pharmaceutical company purchased the antiparasitic drug Daraprim and hiked prices from $13.50 USD to $750.00 USD per tablet. He started a war of words on Twitter and was labelled “the most hated man in America”. His infamy brought upon serious conversation around the practice of drug pricing in the United States. Even potential presidential candidate hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders vowed to crack down on unfair drug pricing policies. Despite this initial firestorm of outrage, within a few months, the conversation fizzled, and drug pricing policies are rarely mentioned even as Shkreli continues to make headlines. In fact, public interest in Martin Shkreli peaked between December 13 and 19, 2015 when Shkreli was revealed as the purchaser of the ultra rare Wu-Tang Clan album “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin”.In the case of Shkreli, a serious conversation about drug pricing and pharmaceutical companies was easily overwhelmed by his celebrity. The media only presents information that it believes the public will follow closely – in this case, his flamboyance over the serious but dull issue of drug pricing. This is a good example of how media often changes the angle of a story to appeal to the public. Despite the immediate and emotional response, the public lacks the stamina to effect real changes – in this case, real changes in how drugs are priced.

We as scientists have a responsibility to influence the media and how the public consumes scientific information disseminated by the media. To start, we need to change the types of information the public acquires beyond mainstream media. Some of us have heavily advocated for the use of open access journals and data, both positive and negative, to help the public obtain all the relevant information they need to make informed decisions. Others have specifically hired well-trained scientific writers, not typical journalists, for scientific pieces. Avenues such as /r/science on Reddit have provided tools for scientific discussion among the lay audience. The flow of information from scientists to the public via the media has become increasingly important for raising public awareness as well as generating funding for science. It is imperative for the scientist to keep up with media outlets and the public to protect scientific integrity.


References:

  1. Olson, R. (2015). “Design Critique: Putting Big Pharma spending in perspective.” Randal S. Olson. 
  2. Scannell, J. (2015). “Four reasons drugs are expensive, of which two are false.” Forbes.
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Dennis Lee

Dennis is a second year graduate student interested in sports, science, and shenanigans. Especially shenanigans.

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