Kayte McCann: Standing up for science

Kayte McCannAre we standing up for science, or have we all become so laid back about it that the very basis of medicine and research are now lost to us?

Earlier this week I attended the Sense About Science annual lecture at the Royal Society of Medicine in London. The lecture was entitled “It’s time to stand up for science once more.”

Sense About Science campaigns to reform libel laws and protect the rights of those who speak out against dubious science. It also aims to promote free debate in science, and education to the public where issues may prove difficult to interpret.

BMJ editor-in-chief Fiona Godlee delivered this year’s lecture, taking us on a whirlwind tour of medical history, starting with why the Royal Society of Medicine was formed and looking at the historical books contained within the original library. The talk moved on to medical journals the BMJ and the Lancet, and its early investigative journalism into baby farming, which itself lead to the first legislation on infant life.

Did Thomas Wakley, founder of the Lancet,have the same objectives as Sense About Science? Listening to the lecture, it certainly seemed to me that we have not progressed a great deal since the middle of the 19th century. We are still fighting for peer review, to know how answers have been found, for clear and transparent research publication. According to Dr Godlee, the entire evidence base for clinical medicine is in a mess.

The lecture was especially interesting to me, since my knowledge of medical history is very sparse. If the pub quiz team is ever asked who made a particular medical breakthrough, I always manage to make myself busy and let someone else answer. I never did medical history or medical classics in school, and for some reason it’s eluded me ever since.

The talk switched on to the very topical area of Tamiflu. More importantly, why do we still not have all the evidence? Why did Roche, the drug company that manufactures Tamiflu, withhold information? In December 2009 the BMJ published an updated Cochrane review which questioned the efficacy and safety of Tamiflu, together with an investigation looking at how it was evaluated, regulated and promoted.

And speaking of drugs and pharmaceutical companies, have we learnt anything from Vioxx? The drug increased the risk of suffering a thromboembolic event before it was eventually withdrawn.  Apparently we’ve not learnt a great deal; conflicts of interest are still not being disclosed. The World Health Organization has recently come under fire for using advisers who were paid by drug companies and not making it clear if they had a conflict of interest.

Talking of which, I have one to declare. I’m on an elective placement at the BMJ.

Kayte McCann is a fourth year medical student at the University of East Anglia.