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'Money-Back Guarantee' for Research?

Michael Rosenblatt, the executive vice president and chief medical officer at Merck, says that universities should offer money-back guarantees that the research coming out of their labs is reproducible.

In an opinion piece appearing in Science Translational Medicine this week, Rosenblatt bemoans the prevalence of irreproducible scientific results. As Antonio Regalado notes at Technology Review, one study found that only six of 53 landmark cancer papers could be replicated.

This issue, Rosenblatt adds, largely affects translational work that's adapting basic research findings — typically made in academic labs — to find new patient treatments. He estimates that it takes between two and six researchers in an industry lab a year to two years' worth of work to reproduce a study at a cost of about $500,000 to $2 million.

"The diversion of much of a critical component of the translational effort into avenues that have little chance of success wastes not only a portion of the public's investment in academic research and industry's subsequent investment but also valuable time," Rosenblatt writes.

To that end, he suggests that universities and industry should enter into an agreement under which universities guarantee their results. Industry would reward reproducible results, but on the flip side, universities would return funds for irreproducible results. "This approach places the incentive squarely with the investigator (including his or her laboratory) and the institution — precisely the leverage points for change," he says.

However, Tech Review's Regalado doesn't think universities will go for it.

"The issue is certainly serious — but if this became a requirement it would stop [university-industry] research in its tracks," David Winwood from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center tells Regalado. "Few if any public schools would have either the (financial) capacity or, I suspect, the legal authority, to enter into such an agreement."