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Medical researchers: Asking the right questions?

What kind of research should, or should not, be done?

This question was at the heart of the controversy over avian flu research that prompted dozens of scientists to declare a moratorium in January 2012 on researching H5N1 transmission -- a research blackout that was only recently lifted last month.

But in a Feb. 2 editorial, a related question was posed by the editors at The Lancet, one of the world's leading medical journals. They asked: "What is the purpose of medical research?"

For a prestigious medical journal founded in 1823, this seems like a pretty basic question to be asking in 2013. But as The Lancet suggests, perhaps this is a question not being raised enough these days.

"The question about the importance, purpose, and impact of research should surely not be an afterthought at publication stage," the editorial states. However, this "happens most of the time" and is exactly what occurred with the two H5N1 papers that sparked the avian flu research controversy.

According to a study cited in the editorial, an estimated 85% of research is wasteful or inefficient. Meanwhile, the U.S. spends $160 billion on biomedical research every year.

Here is what the purpose of medical research should be, according to The Lancet's editors: to advance knowledge for the good of society, to improve the worldwide health and find better treatments and disease preventions.

But "the reality is different," they claim. "The research environment, with its different players, is now much less conducive to thinking about such noble goals," the editorial reads. "Research has become an enterprise, an economic engine for nations, a necessary step on the way to economic growth. But surely the purpose of research is more than that."

Jennifer Yang is the Toronto Star’s global health reporter. She previously worked as a general assignment reporter and won a NNA in 2011 for her explanatory piece on the Chilean mining disaster. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar



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