While the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in research breakthroughs, such as vaccine development, contact tracing, and some preventative measures, unfortunately it has also contributed a considerable amount of waste. This pandemic-related waste includes physical waste, due to unfinished clinical trials and experiments, but also waste in terms of time and money for all those involved. In this article, we examine research waste, its exacerbation during the pandemic, and methods the community can implement to prevent the generation of future waste associated with scientific research.
Since COVID-19 was a novel coronavirus at its emergence, the only research available to build upon was that for related diseases like severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). Due to the considerable uncertainty about COVID-19, many research teams worked to provide new information on the virus, including performing the necessary clinical trials. According to an article published by National Public Radio, two writers from the Lancet stated these clinical trials were problematic due to being “…too small to provide conclusive evidence that a possible treatment does or does not work.” This confusion resulted in duplicated and overlapped trials. Further, due to the uncertainties surrounding COVID-19, many researchers began conducting clinical trials even though clinical research was not their expertise or common practice, ultimately leading to numerous unfinished experiments. Collectively, these clinical trials resulted in a considerable amount of wasted money and materials, as well as lost time provided by volunteers and researchers.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic is not the first occurrence of research waste. In an article from The London School of Economics and Political Science, they cite an example: in 2005, there were enough studies to officially conclude that Aprotinin, a drug used to limit bleeding during cardiac surgery, was effective. However, in the following years, over 4000 patients remained involved in Aprotinin versus placebo trials, which resulted in half of those patients not receiving the actual drug.
So, the question is: how do we prevent future academic- or research-related waste? The London School of Economics and Political Science article states a few ways to start: “designing new studies, justifying new studies, referencing earlier similar trials, and placing new results in the context of existing results from earlier similar trials.” A group of researchers also developed the Evidence-Based Research Network, which uses an approach that prevents research waste. Specifically, this method, also called EBR, promotes “no new studies without prior systematic review of existing evidence, efficient production, updating and dissemination of systematic reviews” (check out more here: ebrnetwork.org). These best practices, among others, will hopefully be implemented by researchers in the future. As a result, future research may not be associated with the generation of superfluous waste.