The Cultural Contradictions of Modern Science   /   Fall 2016   /    The Cultural Contradictions Of Modern Science

Trivial Pursuits

The Decline of Scientific Research

Paul Scherz

Ikon Images/Alamy.

Scientists who rely on government grants must continually calibrate their research interests to the changing funding regimes.

In 2015, Forbes magazine proclaimed Elizabeth Holmes “the world’s youngest self-made woman billionaire.”11x“The World’s Billionaires: #435 Elizabeth Holmes,” Forbes online, http://www.forbes.com/profile/elizabeth- holmes/. Accessed August 22, 2016 About a decade earlier, when she was nineteen, she dropped out of Stanford to transform the medical industry by introducing a faster, cheaper kind of blood test requiring only a finger stick rather than a needle jab in the vein.22xKen Auletta, “Blood, Simpler,” The New Yorker, December 15, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/ 2014/12/15/blood-simpler. The company she founded to produce and administer this technology, Theranos, raised more than $400 million in venture capital and came to be valued at an estimated $9 billion.33xAbigail Stevenson, “World’s Youngest Female Billionaire—Next Steve Jobs?” CNBC online, September 23, 2015, http://www.cnbc.com/2015/09/23/worlds-youngest-female-billionaire-next-steve-jobs.html. Here was a classic Silicon Valley and biotech success story: By breaking free of old institutions, a young genius could design a new device that would radically disrupt the medical testing industry. Or so the story briefly ran.

Reality was less exciting. Holmes, it seems, had exploited tremendous hype and her father’s extensive business connections to amass financial backing for a technology that never demonstrably worked.44xThe first of these reports was by John Carreyrou: “Hot Startup Theranos Has Struggled with Its Blood- Test Technology,” Wall Street Journal, October 16, 2015. Her fall from grace was swift. Forbes changed her company’s value from $4.5 billion to $0, and in July 2016 the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services banned her from operating blood-testing facilities for two years.55xJohn Carreyou, Michael Siconalfi, and Christopher Weaver, “Theranos Dealt Sharp Blow as Elizabeth Holmes Banned from Operating Labs,” Wall Street Journal, July 8, 2016, http://www.wsj.com/articles/us- regulator-bans-theranos-ceo-elizabeth-holmes-from-operating-labs-for-two-years-1467956064. [Editor’s Note: In July 2018, she was indicted for criminal fraud.]

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