The Billionaire Couple Targeting Shoddy and Secretive Science

A growing recognition of retractions, scandals and crimes against statistics in published studies have people inside and outside the science community concerned about the amount of bad work is out there, and how much it threatens the credibility of research overall. Laura and John Arnold, that up-and-coming power couple in philanthropy, are backing the first large-scale effort to investigate the problem and intensify rigor in research.

The Laura and John Arnold Foundation has a one-of-a-kind program to improve research integrity by increasing transparency and reliability of scientific studies. Vice President for Research Integrity Stuart Buck leads the charge, bringing to the job a mix of expertise in research, law and education. [Read IP's profile of Buck here.]

The program’s signature grantee is the Center for Open Science, a project of psychologist Brian Nosek to improve openness and reproducibility of research. The center was established by the Arnold Foundation last year with a $5.25 million grant, and has received an additional $1.5 million for its efforts to test past studies by replicating them.

The Arnolds are an increasingly prominent couple in the philanthropy world, and the more we learn about them, the more intrigued we become. Just entering their 40s, both have essentially retired to focus on their foundation, launched in 2008. John was an Enron trader who left to start a hedge fund that made him a billionaire. (See IP's profile of John Arnold.) Laura is a Yale-educated former corporate lawyer and executive. (See IP's profile of Laura Arnold.) The two live in Houston, where they approach their philanthropy as a true partnership, keeping the foundation's staff very small and involving themselves closely in grantmaking. The foundation doesn't accept unsolicited proposals, but rather seeks out partners who can advance their goals. At latest tally, the foundation is up to $1.3 billion in assets, focusing on criminal justice, education, government transparency, and research integrity. The latter focus area is their second-largest, with LJAF giving $55 million here in the past three years. 

The program has shown an emerging pattern of finding researchers with watchdog-like tendencies and backing a program devoted to that work full time. Its largest grantee is actually an initiative to improve the quality of nutrition research, but the Center for Open Science has drawn a lot of attention recently for charging head-on at the issue of weak and/or secretive science. 

The impetus for the project comes from the field of psychology, where an unfortunate mix of juicy, headline-grabbing studies and a pattern of bad statistics and sloppy research resulted in a credibility crisis. Brian Nosek, a University of Virginia researcher, and his grad student Jeffrey Spies, orchestrated a drive to replicate several psychological studies to determine the scale of the problem. But the Arnold Foundation took the mission to the next level with the sizable grant. 

The Center has a few key projects. The first is a continuing initiative to reproduce experiments that are on the books, not just in psychology but all science, notably including 50 landmark cancer studies. But it’s about more than just testing the credibility of existing science; the center also wants to change the way research is conducted, bringing transparency to research, from start to finish.

The Open Science Framework is a new approach to conducting studies that, in a public online forum, allows peers to review research even from the intitial stages. This is counter to the tendency to work in secrecy and then release results, shoving into a lab drawer the complex series of decisions made along the way. 

Participants have said reaction to the project is mixed, and the Framework itself may very well not gain traction as a new model for research, but the Arnolds at least are committed to asking these tough questions and blowing the whistle on those who won’t.