Industry-Sponsored Research Week

Sponsors, research managers encouraged to consider incentives for data reproducibility


By David Schwartz
Published: July 18th, 2017

It’s an embarrassing problem for university research managers, most of whom have experienced it more than a few times. When a research sponsor pays a hefty price and receives either outright failure of the research or results that can’t be reproduced, it can not only cause friction but may cost future partnerships and funding. Essentially, the deal becomes “lose-lose,” with sponsors losing their cash and both parties potentially losing what might otherwise be a valuable long-term collaboration.

Last year a former executive with giant drug maker Merck & Co. floated an idea to help overcome this problem, proposing that research agreements provide for refunds of funding when studies go awry or can’t be replicated — and incentive payments when they can.

There don’t appear to be any examples — yet — of industry sponsors offering, or universities accepting, the kind of financial incentives controversially proposed by Michael Rosenblatt, MD, who was then executive vice president and chief medical officer at Merck. And there’s little apparent support for his specific notion about sponsors getting their money back when research results aren’t what they were anticipating. But while academic researchers may bristle at the notion of any questioning, or quantifying, of the “quality” of their data, some university attorneys are less than hostile to the notion of efforts — including those involving more or less money on the table — to improve the reproducibility of research results. That, Rosenblatt says, was his intent all along.

“Most people were positive about the article, and hopeful that academia and industry would pilot new ideas and models for research collaborations,” says Rosenblatt, who is now CMO at Flagship Ventures, which operates as a scientific cofounder of and business partner to new ventures. “Although academia-industry collaborations represent only a minor portion of the biomedical research enterprise,” he adds, “they occupy a crucially important and visible position along the translational pathway toward new therapies.”

The problem, as he wrote in “An incentive-based approach for improving data reproducibility” in Science Translational Medicine, is this: “Industry expends and universities collect funding, even when the original data cannot be reproduced. In the instance of failure, collaborations dissolve, with resulting opportunity loss for both academia and industry.”

“There are many reasons data isn’t reproducible,” Rosenblatt says. “Sometimes it’s because the datasets are not robust enough, or due to a variation of reagents in the procedure or flawed methodology.” In the article, he also listed “pressures to publish papers or secure grants, criteria for career advancement, deficiencies in training and non-rigorous reviews and journal practices.”

He adds, importantly: “Very, very rarely is it due to outright fraud.” So it stands to reason that double-checking and retesting before attempting to contract with industry “would be a good way to ensure that the data can be reproduced by others,” he comments. “Of course, there will likely always be a margin of error, but making the effort would have an impact.”

Other remedies proposed thus far — “more rigorous methods, standards, statistical analysis and training and changes in evaluation for promotion and tenure” — all “prescribe specific treatments without an effector mechanism,” he noted in the article, making it doubtful they will be “timely or sufficient.”

Instead, he offered this approach to diminishing irreproducible data as a roadblock to effective academia-industry collaborations: “What if universities stand behind the research data that lead to collaborative agreements with industry, and what if industry provides a financial incentive for data that can be replicated? What if universities offered some form of full or partial money-back guarantee? With such assurance, companies could proceed with a project more rapidly and more frequently. They would also be likely to pay a premium over current rates for data backed by such assurance over ‘nonguaranteed’ data, even from the same university.”

A detailed article on the proposal and the reaction to it among research managers appears in the July issue of Industry-Sponsored Research Management. To subscribe and access the complete article – and get the charter subscription rate of just $297 (a $100 discount), CLICK HERE.

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Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week

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