October 21, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Hyped Nature paper & author knighthood 2 days later raise red flags

Was an intensely hyped Nature paper connected to the subsequent knighthood for one of the authors just two days after publication?

It’s hard to imagine there isn’t a connection and such a link is bad news for biomedical science.

Professor Doug Turnbull and fellow UK authors published a Nature paper a few days ago that reinforced a safety concern about 3-person IVF/mitochondrial replacement. The same safety issue had also been raised by an earlier paper by a different team. However, some of the authors of the new study, the press in the UK, and the sponsoring Wellcome Trust foundation all spun this new paper as being good news and hyped it.

doug turnbull

The main meme pushed forward in the hype was that the study proved that 3-person IVF would lead to safe pregnancies. If you focus on the actual data in the paper by the team led by Mary Herbert, it pointed to the opposite conclusion in the form of continuing safety concerns. For many of us in the broader scientific community the intensity of the hype surrounding this paper and the misleading narrative about safety was concerning.

Why was there such a coordinated effort to spin this paper as good news?

On Friday only two days after the publication of this new paper, the BBC reported that Turnbull received a knighthood.

Could this be part of the answer for the hype fest? What’s the scoop here?

In reporting the news on the knighthood the BBC used the same meme noting incorrectly that the research by Turnbull and the others on the team had proven safety: “…recent study results showed the technique was safe.” The inaccurate text was bolded in the BBC article on the knighthood.

Turnbull has a long career in science that might justify a knighthood and I’m not questioning that here, but the press on his knighthood focused squarely on mitochondrial replacement and the new paper was a central point.

This hyped paper and the knighthood raise many difficult questions.

Did the intense hype about this paper have anything to do with the impending announcement of the knighthood? Was the decision on the knighthood influenced by a misleadingly upbeat interpretation of the coming paper?

Was the timing of the Nature paper’s publication coordinated with the knighthood announcement? In other words, did the editors of the UK-based Nature follow a certain timeline created by the UK government? It’s interesting that Nature itself as best I could tell did not do a news story on this new paper, which is unusual. Outside the UK this paper was not covered much and I did not see the same “feel good” label attached to it in the press that did pop up.

What was the motivation for the hype? What impact does this kind of playing politics have on science? Does it encourage the wider life sciences community to engage in hype as well?

The bottom line is that 3-person IVF/mitochondrial replacement has taken on a self-sustaining life of its own as a technology beyond strictly adhering to the goal of helping people. This top billing for the technology itself poses real risks for those people in medical need and for science more generally.

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