30 seconds of idiocy. The cure for cancer is delayed by decades.

There was a really interesting letter in the journal Nature on Thursday, “Australia’s grant system wastes time,” which was about how much time goes into preparing a grant for funding with Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council (in Canada, this would be the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, and in the US, the National Institutes of Health). The authors of the letter did a survey of Australian researchers and found that it took, on average, 38 working days to prepare a new proposal. They extrapolated their survey data to estimate how much cumulative time was spent by Australian researchers who applied to the NHMRC preparing grants, and estimated thatn 550 working years of research time was spent on this endeavour. As with all federal funding agencies, only a small percentage of grant proposals get funding. In 2012, that was 20.5% in Australia. So, basically, about four centuries of cumulative research time was wasted, with no return on the time spent. The point of the letter was to encourage the NHMRC to simplify the application process to decrease the time wasted.

But there’s another insidious drain on research that goes unrecognized and I think really has manifested itself only in the past 10-ish years with the explosion of self-help publishing as well as the widespread adoption of social media that permits easy viral sharing of ideas; and that is the constant distraction of sensationalism.

Scientists, though predominantly up in the ivory tower, _are_ subject to public opinion. Writing a grant for a topic that is already a well-established fad makes it relevant to the public and thus, does have an effect on whether it will get funded or not.

Prior to “Internet 2.0” (or are we on 3.0?), if a fad happened, it was usually in the form of a book. A book takes time and research, and a publisher. That’s not to say that there are no bad books, but there were definitely more than 3 studies cited in the Zone diet, and the Atkins diet books. Now, a 30-second sound-byte on the Dr. Oz show results in the creation of a whole subset of an industry, for which there are 3 non-human studies in the literature (and that’s the only comment I’ll make on this raspberry ketone business.)

The effect of viral sharing has basically resulted in scientific distraction and an upside-down prioiritization of research goals. In any other arena, the existing body of research on raspberry ketones would not justify the funding of a full-out randomized controlled trial. However, due to the widespread popularity of such a supplement, I’m sure we’ll be seeing the publication of these trials in the next 2-3 years. That’s a lot of potentially wasted time and money that could have been spent on, say, pancreatic cancer research. There’s always a limited pot for research grants. Funding one project means another one can’t be funded.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be generating trial data on supplements or health fads–the fact that a lot of people are using them without proof-of-effect is worrisome and merits investigation (which I realize, is an incredibly paternalistic position.) But randomized controlled trials can be resource-intensive projects. They should be conducted when there’s sufficient evidence to justify a large expenditure of time, energy and money. It’s bad enough that four centuries of cumulative time get wasted on writing grants that never get funded; it would be a tragedy to waste another century on funding trials that aren’t justified for any other reason than its viral existence.

So what can you do to help cure cancer? Stop clicking.

The battle for your attention rises every day. Your attention has become the world’s most prized commodity, precisely because that’s how ideas become viral. A 5-minute TV clip means nothing unless it is followed by a million clicks, likes, and shares.

I’m not usually the one to say that a billion small steps makes a journey; that every little bit counts; however, in this case, a million people not clicking could save lives in the future.

Help cure cancer. Protect your willpower.

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