Perverse Research Incentives and the Wuhan “Lab Leak” Theory

Academics with no research funding desperately want to have research funding. Academics with research funding desperately want to have more research funding. The amount of grant money that scientists bring in is slowly overtaking peer reviewed output as the most important research KPI, at least in the world’s top universities. If funding dries up, careers, and sometimes lives, are ruined, often beyond repair.

A recent Vanity Fair article on the COVID-19 “Lab Leak Theory,” which posits that the origin of the novel coronavirus can be traced back to a November 2019 leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, raises some serious questions about the perverse incentives surrounding research grant funding.

In February 2020, The Lancet, one of the world’s top medical journals, published a statement condemning the “rumours,” “misinformation,” and “conspiracy theories” centering around the lab leak theory, essentially stating that any argument in this vein is evidence of prejudice and xenophobia. Following The Lancet statement, anyone suggesting that the virus originated at the Wuhan Institute of Virology was summarily accused of spreading “fake news.” Social media posts were “fact-checked” and removed from the public conversation because the “scientists” had spoken.

It turns out, according to the Vanity Fair article, that one of the signatories of The Lancet statement (and perhaps even its instigator) was involved in U.S.-funded “gain of function” research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Money was apparently being funnelled from the National Institutes of Health and USAID indirectly into the laboratory.

The Lancet statement ends, “We declare no competing interests.”

It is now clear that a perfectly reasonable “origin” hypothesis (though by no means confirmed) has been systematically repressed and excluded from the realm of possibility. I say “perfectly reasonable” because a March 2020 article published in Scientific American quotes Shi Zhengli, the Director of the Wuhan lab: “If coronaviruses were the culprit, she remembers, ‘Could they have come from our lab?’” It appears that anyone else on social media other than Shi would be banned for asking that same question.

“It is now clear that a perfectly reasonable “origin” hypothesis (though by no means confirmed) has been systematically repressed and excluded from the realm of possibility.”

To the extent that COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, this is not to suggest that China alone is guilty of a cover-up. As noted above, a dense network of scientists, including many from the West, were hellbent on repressing the lab leak theory throughout 2020 and into early 2021. The key question at hand is: why?

The answer, I think, boils down to the aforementioned perverse incentives surrounding scientific research funding. If we had conclusive evidence of a lab leak, this would likely lead to a serious contraction of funding for “gain of function” research in virology, thus threatening the careers of the world’s top virologists. Labs would be closed down, entire research tracks would be abandoned, and the number of publications would fall. According to Jamie Metlz, “if the pandemic started as part of a lab leak, it had the potential to do to virology what Three Mile Island and Chernobyl did to nuclear science.”

“We declare no competing interests,” they said. Let’s be clear. All scientists have competing interests. Perhaps it’s time for a serious rethink of our research funding KPIs. Your health and our national security may depend on it.

Professor Andrew R. Timming

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

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