It is time scientists are open and honest about the realistic benefits of their research or is it time the media take responsibility for inflating scientists claims?
I saw this article published this week in the Guardian newspaper ‘Spinal injury cures:balancing hope and expectation‘, which highlighted how important it is for scientists to be realistic about the clinical outcomes of their research. Frequently you read a paper or listen to a seminar about some novel research which has the potential to cure/treat/repair/reverse a wide variety of diseases. And you think, wow! What a miracle! But what are the realities? Are scientists raising the hope of patients who are in desperate need of new treatments? Or is it the media which are to blame?
Spinal cord injury is a fitting example of this. Research in spinal cord injury often makes the headlines, with exaggerated claims of patients walking again. Sure, research in this field is moving fast and progress is being made. But for patients unable to walk, how relevant is this research? How many years until the research being reported as a ‘miracle cure’ becomes available in your clinic?
I think one of the main problems is the gap between the researcher and the patient. if the researcher could see the world from a patients point of view, perhaps they would be more restrained from inflating the outputs of their research. I was very lucky when I worked in the lab, I met several patients who explained their worries, their hopes and their dreams of a cure. Of course it is important to offer hope but I think it is important to be honest and truthful about the expectations. Hopefully, the increasing role of public engagement in science will bridge the gap between researchers and patients.
However, I feel part of the responsibility lies with the media. The media often run breaking headlines on miracle cures with highly exaggerated claims (NB. I am not picking on the Daily Express, however it was the first 3 items that appeared in my google search). The media need to stop using scientific research to sell papers. They need to take responsibility on how these headlines raise hopes of patients desperately seeking a cure.
In the minefield of information out there, it is difficult for patients to understand the progress being made. Patients who have been suffering from a disease for several years will eventually become immune to the reports of ‘miracle cures’ as their expectations are slowly lowered. Perhaps a more honest and open discussion between scientists, media and patients can help patients make a realistic determination of the hopes and expectations.