Tate Williams

New Stanford Center Using Meta-Research to Clean Up Shoddy Science

Tate Williams May 20, 2014
Messy-space

Originally published on Inside Philanthropy May 16, 2014.

In 2005, epidemiologist John Ioannidis shook up the scientific community, calling out a crisis of statistical weakness in research with his paper titled “Why most published research findings are false.” Thanks to funding from Laura and John Arnold, Ioannidis is now rounding up something like The Untouchables of research, a team out of Stanford devoted to cleaning up this credibility problem.

Initial funding of more than $6 million recently established a Stanford program called the Meta-Research Innovation Center, or METRICS, which will use empirical study to find weaknesses, biases and wasted time in research methods. The center is most concerned with life sciences, but aims to strengthen the overall quality of published research.

The METRICS program is the latest large initiative of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation’s unique and growing Research Integrity program, which they established in response to retractions, scandals and weak claims troubling academia in recent years. The increasingly prominent philanthropy power couple has devoted a sizable chunk of its giving to cracking down on shoddy or secretive science (as we wrote about here in February).

Another prominent grantee in the program is the Center for Open Science, a project of University of Virginia researcher Brian Nosek, who has been on the warpath for psychology studies with weak statistics, as well as opaque research methods. The center attempts to reproduce questionable and/or high-profile studies, but also has been promoting a framework for more transparent and collaborative research.

The Arnold program’s other main and largest grantee is focused on the answers, or lack thereof, to the obesity problem. The Nutrition Science Initiative, started by science journalist Gary Taube, received an impressive commitment of $35.5 million last year from the funder to continue its hunt for more rigorous and reliable data on food and health.

It’s a one-of-a-kind program, but it fits snugly between the Arnold Foundation’s substantial funding for education reform and for government accountability. This young billionaire couple is seriously into discipline. (See IP’s profile of John Arnold and our profile of Laura Arnold.)

The discipline seems to be called for here, particularly in some of the fields these initiatives will be targeting. Psychology in particular has been experiencing a huge credibility problem, thanks to an overabundance of headline-grabbing studies combined with persistent discoveries of bad numbers and retractions.

Stanford’s METRICS will bring together some of the brightest minds in medicine, statistics and epidemiology to formalize these growing efforts to scrutinize research. The term “meta-research” means research about other research, and the center will hold a magnifying glass to published papers and their methods. Leading the effort will be Ioannidis, highly respected medical researcher and Steven Goodman, professor of medicine and health research and policy and associate dean for clinical and translational research.

Cop metaphors aside, it’s not all about policing. The researchers are seeking to improve the overall efficiency and reliability in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. The team will formalize the study of studies, establishing best practices to improve credibility and standards.

But the center will do its share of whistleblowing, setting up a “journal watch” that will shame weak research papers and encourage decision makers and the press to ignore them. And while medical research is at the core of its mission, the work will span all disciplines. Look sharp everyone.

The Laura and John Arnold Foundation: Grants for Science Research

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