Scientific Research

The road to hell is paved with good intentions...

I’m sure we can all relate to this well-known aphorism; I know I certainly can. I regularly try to pick up the pen and put down thought and information gleaned but, somehow, it gets pushed aside with everything else going on…horses, clients, clients’ horses… Everything is a juggling act and those moments when you should be getting on with writing a new article, you suddenly find yourself distracted by something possibly equally important, but certainly far easier!

Nevertheless, a few days out of circulation and essentially cut off from the ‘run of the mill’ things – and internet – afforded me time to start to cobble together three articles. One is finished – the one you are about to read –, one is well advanced – and should go out at the end of June – and the third is only in first draft but it is promising and should not present too many hurdles to finish it before the end of July – on time!

Please enjoy this latest offering and do not hesitate to leave a comment (preferably here on the site) should you wish to react.


Scientific research is becoming steadily less reliable...

The Past

Traditionally, scientific research has been financed by universities and research bodies and audited by means of peer review. The system of audit was held to be good practice insofar as it purported to prevent rogue research and subsequent publication of ‘nonsense’ and, to this day, is an almost parroted demand in some circles – often where (evidence-based) research appears to go against the establishment idea.
Nevertheless, as with almost any system of what is essentially a subjective check, it has its faults; poor research slips through and good research gets blocked. The latter is probably exemplified in recent years by the case of Andrew Wakefield, a subsequently discredited surgeon, who published research in The Lancet claiming a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. This claimed research, supported by twelve co-researchers was subsequently found to be lacking with no other research scientist being able to reproduce the results. A legal case followed in 2004 leading eventually to Wakefield being struck off the medical register. Nevertheless, a press conference held by Wakefield around the time of the publication in 1998 resulted in an alarming drop in the number of MMR vaccines administered; both this press conference and the publication in The Lancet are somewhat surprising in view of Wakefield’s already tarnished research reputation after a discredited study into a link between Measles and Crohn’s disease. Although in some circles Wakefield’s research was sufficiently unpopular that after just three years he was asked to ‘mutually’ step down from his positions the Royal Free Hospital and the UCL medical school, it was twelve years1 before he was struck off.

At the other extreme, in the early 19th century, Bracy Clark MRCVS wrote extensively on the horse’s hoof2 and noted that horseshoes caused a great deal of damage. His ideas were ridiculed by his peers and the story goes that he was even ostracized, being thrown out of the College of Veterinary Surgeons for his heresy, although this seems unlikely since in 1857 he became the Vice President of the College

The Present

Clearly Bracy Clark was not the first scientist to suffer ridicule; Copernicus, Galileo et al – and probably going further back than even Pythagoras – have all been the subject of ridicule and contempt, often to the point of being accused of being heretic since their theories, and even observations, did not rhyme with the established opinions and teachings of the church. In most civilizations, the church has now been displaced by the scientific community, but the accusations of heresy and the non-acceptance of deviation from the established teachings – even in spite of provable, repeatable evidence – still exist.

The biggest difference, however, is that present-day science is generally no longer funded by general research grants from universities; it is the product of commercial investment. This leads to great difficulty in launching research that does not bring financial gain – in fact, it has got to the stage that researchers are almost spending more time on finding sponsors than on the research itself. Furthermore, with research being commercially financed, the results required are often pre-defined and when they are not forthcoming, the research is closed down without any form of publication; it is considered a failure, rather than a negative result.

This leads understandably to repeated research:
Team A studies the possible application of a square wheel but rather than publishing a negative result showing the impracticality of the proposition, they consider it a failure and, following established scientific principle, scrap their research.
Team B comes along a few years later with a similar proposition and, finding no existing research documents, starts its own study right from the beginning. This cycle then repeats itself with every successive group of Square Wheel researchers, wasting valuable time and resources by not being able to build upon their predecessors knowledge.
It also leads to censured research. Or even a complete absence. If the research leads to a result that goes against the policy of a backer, then the backer will often require the researcher to desist from publication; this is often agreed to since the backer may well be required for a later project and, being thin on the ground, such a backer is a valuable asset to the researcher. It may also be a requirement of the funding. Or the backer requires regular updates and when it appears the results will not be favourable, he pulls the plug. If the researcher proposes a study that is likely to contradict the backers position, then no money will be forthcoming from the very start.
Even for graduates, this can pose problems for the end of study thesis. Many theses are actually a compilation of studied papers on a specific subject where the student draws summary conclusions from other people’s research; this research will often already have been censured. However, should the student wish to draw an opposing conclusion, possibly through criticism of research techniques, their professors may not be too favourable in allowing them to publish something that goes against the grain of the professors’ own sponsors…or even the professors’ own opinions.

This all might seem an unlikely scenario but consider the following (semi) theoretical situations.

  1. A feed manufacturer is asked to sponsor a study into the negative effects of cereals on horses:
    Being core business, showing the negative effects of cereals is clearly not in the interests of the manufacturer. Even should they already sell grass-based feeds, being less popular – they are both more expensive and not mainstream – they are a minority product. Money is to be made on traditional feed due to higher turnover and a generally higher profit margin. A change in sales policy needs a major commitment and a firm financial standing. Furthermore, the company knows that the biggest market is going to be the riding clubs where tradition generally dictates no change in policy!
  2. Veterinary researchers would like to conduct a study into the negative effects of shoeing:
    The head of the service is himself involved in locomotion research. This would seem to be a good idea – if sponsors can be found.
    Research starts but the head of the service is likely to keep his finger on the pulse and control the way the research is carried out, directing methodology and probably providing the patients/subjects used for the research. This way he can ensure that the results are predictable and do not affect his own involvement in the production of orthopædic horseshoes!
  3. A veterinary specialist would like to study the effects of riding young horses and determine a ‘safe’ age when riding can start with a minimum of detriment to the horse:
    Finding a sponsor will be almost impossible for several reasons:
    1. What will this research actually bring to an organization? Feed manufacturers would like to feed horses as early and as much as possible; a working horse will consume more cereal than a ‘sedentary’ one. And a growing working horse will consume yet more…
      Horseshoe manufacturers want an animal that uses its feet; if it’s working, that’s better for them…
    2. The betting and racing industry is huge. It is unimaginable that they would want to sponsor a study which jeopardises one of the most lucrative corners of the industry, the races for two and three-year olds…
    3. A study has already been done (in 2008 by Dr Deb Bennett) which unfortunately for some, showed that horses are started too early. This study is pretty much definitive and disliked by almost all whom it affects adversely…

The Future

So we see that sponsorship, peer reviews and welfare studies are often hampered right from the start. If it is not in the (best) interests of the sponsor and/or the peer reviewer, then even the welfare of the animal must often take a back seat.

This has lead to what is essentially a resurgence of experience-based science. A resurgence because long before peer reviews became the norm, much of science was experience-based, albeit very much more primitive than today. Ptolemy considered the universe geocentric (Earth centred) which coincided nicely with the theological view that the Earth must be the centre of the Universe. When Copernicus made his deductions from texts he had read, some 500 years later, they led him to believe in a heliocentric – sun-centred – universe. Fifty years later, Galileo took up this theory from observations he had made of the tides. Thus from his observation, in his experience the Earth went around the Sun (which turned out to be correct). This cost him a few friends, and his freedom – and also turned out to be rubbish as far as theories go…there would only be one high tide a day if his theory were correct! Nevertheless, these were theories based upon observation – probably Islamic – in a time when the scientific equipment generally available was not much more sophisticated than a toothpick.

Today, we are fortunate to have highly sophisticated electronic equipment available to even an amateur observer. We can record high quality sound and video, we can slow it down – or speed it up –, we can send it to our friends and colleagues and share our opinions. We have social media, Wikipedia and Google to goggle at. However crass these technologies and services may seem, they are our biggest gateways to sharing and confirming experience.
Today, we can film horses, unshod and shod, in slow motion, and watch the effects of every landing of the feet…we can compare our film with those of others; discuss the similarities and differences. And not necessarily be encumbered by peer review.

But beware, even this experience-based science is at risk. As we have seen with COVID-19, ‘social’ media can be very anti-social; not only in the outspoken nature of amateur opponents, but also the insidious nature of the social media algorithms and the demands of those financially most affected to adapt said algorithms. Nobody escapes censure and indoctrination on social media today.

[1]: in effect, fourteen since he was already in receipt of financial remuneration for pushing his false research
[2]: in fact, much of his (early) work was based upon the studies of Charles Vial de Sainbel, one of the first professors of veterinary medicine at the Veterinary College London