The Autism Study Fraud's Impact on Scientific Research

British medical researchers recently discredited the work of one of their colleagues, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who first made headlines more than a decade ago when he linked cases of autism to some common childhood vaccinations. A British medical journal now says Wakefield's autism research is fraudulent, full of inaccuracies and made-up data.

This isn't the first time the medical community has been snookered by fraud. Several years ago, news from South Korea -- of what was originally hailed as a breakthrough in embryonic stem cell research -- soon turned out to be a complete fake. And nearly 100 years ago, the scientific world was fooled into believing fragments of a skull found in Piltdown, England, were part of the "missing link" in human evolution.

Cutting Science to Cut Government

Aside from the embarrassment, researchers know deceptions like the autism research fraud can have much larger consequences, both for the parents of autistic children and for the future of their studies. "It's obviously a discouraging thing, because it taints a lot of very good work that goes on," says Ted Randolph, co-director of the Center for Pharmaceutical Biotechnology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "The public has a very difficult time making up their minds as to which parts of research might be above-board and which parts might be more trouble."

For the past two decades, Randolph has been researching how to stabilize protein solutions in drugs, extending their shelf life for up to two years. His university gets funding for his work from the National Institute of Health, the National Science Foundation, several pharmaceutical companies and the U.S. Department of Defense.Randolph says the autism study fraud shouldn't affect his funding, but it does give ammunition to people who want the government to reduce such research -- in an effort to cut costs.

And he's worried the public doesn't understand that science is constantly checking itself, to ensure such frauds are exposed. "If someone publishes an interesting research result, something really new and something that really strikes people's fancy. . .those kinds of results often get featured in high-level journals [and] draw many people into the field," he says. "So, many people will start trying to use those results as a springboard for their own research. And as part of that research, they'll try to duplicate that research. If those results don't hold up, then very rapidly the problem may come to light. And sometimes it's an honest mistake, a misinterpretation – and occasionally its fraud."

Skepticism Before Belief

Randolph understands why people would grasp at seemingly off-the-wall solutions to such devastating and poorly understood diseases as autism. In fact, he supports such leaps of scientific imagination."You hesitate as a scientist to discount anything," he says. "Most really good ideas sounded kind of wacko when they started out."

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But he says the general public doesn't understand how such hypotheses are tested by researchers."And that's where the problem comes," he says, "because they hear something and become a believer in it -- rather than hearing something and saying 'that's really interesting, we should test that and see if it's true.'"

He points to concerns in the 1990s, that use of the mercury-based preservative Thimerosal in widely used vaccines could increase the risk for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in children.

"When I first read about Thimerosal question, I thought 'that's really interesting, I wonder if there's something to it,'" Randolph remembers. "But for me, the Thimerosal story cleared up pretty quickly. After Thimersoal was no longer being administered, and yet the rates of autism kept going up for kids who had never been exposed to it, clearly for me the question was done;[Thimerosal] wasn't the reason."

Randolph says he and his colleagues are frustrated by the current low level of scientific literacy in the U.S. -- and the apparent trend to distrust science in general. "It's very hard even when scientific evidence comes out, that shows that a popular myth is not true, to convince the public of that," he says, "because they don't understand the science and the scientific method. I think a lot of Americans reject science. Some of [that rejection] swirls around the need to cut government, to say it's not doing much. So there's that kind of pressure on science as a whole."