by Chris MacDonald
It’s always newsworthy when an eminent senior scientist comments on the current state of science policy. They’re not always right, of course, but always worth listening to — even if only to hear the sorts of messages and signals they are sending to those who are going to put stock in what they say.
James Watson (co-discoverer of the double-helix shape of the DNA molecule) has recently argued that ethics boards are hampering research — cancer research in particular. See this piece, posted by Eoin Lettice on The Guardian‘s Science Blog: James Watson: ‘cancer research is over regulated’. Here’s the key paragraph:
…Watson told journalists that he was in favour of less regulation for clinical trials as this could speed up the process of finding a cure for cancer: “We’re terribly held back on clinical tests by regulations which say that no one should die unnecessarily during trials; but they are going to die anyway unless we do something radical. I think the ethics committees are out of control and that it should be put back in the hands of the doctors. There is an extraordinary amount of red tape which is slowing us down. We could go five times faster without these committees….”
Now, all we have here is a fragment in a blog entry, so we should be careful about taking this as constituting Watson’s full, considered view on the role of ethics committees. But if, for the sake of argument, we take his view as presented, we can point out the following gaps:
- It’s just not true that, in most cases anyway, “they’re going to die anyway.” For many cancers, there are effective treatments, and we need to be cautious about subjecting patients to treatments that might well be inferior.
- The claim that “We could go five times faster without these committees” is entirely without support, and seems a gross exaggeration. I’d be surprised to find that ethics board ‘red tape’ made more than a few percentage points difference in the amount of time it takes to get a new idea translated into a new cancer drug.
- Watson is only counting the costs (in delayed research), and not the benefits (e.g., patients’ rights protected, methodologically-suspect trials weeded out), of the involvement of ethics boards in the cancer research process.