Beyond the White Coat

Reliably solving complex problems


The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is an engineering marvel. Costing over $10 billion, it should be. The project cost overrun was 900%. The launch was delayed by more than a decade. The Human Genome Project from 1990 to 2003 was completed slightly ahead of schedule and for less than the $4-$5 billion original estimates. This HGP success story is partly because of private entrepreneurial involvement. The Superconducting Super Collider in Texas spent $2 billion but never got off the ground. Successfully shepherding huge public projects like these involves the art of politics and management as well as science.

Whatever the earlier missteps, the JWST project is now performing above expectations. It has launched, taken up residence a million miles from Earth, deployed its mirrors (a process that had more than 300 possible single points of failure, any one of which would reduce the thing to scrap metal), and been calibrated. The JWST has even been dented by a micrometeoroid – sort of like a parking lot ding on the door of your brand new car. The first images are visually amazing and producing new scientific insights. This is a pinnacle of scientific achievement.

Dr. Kevin T. Powell, a pediatric hospitalist and clinical ethics consultant in St. Louis.

Dr. Kevin T. Powell

What characteristics enable such an achievement? How do we foster those same characteristics in the practice of medicine and medical research? Will the success of the JWST increase and restore the public’s trust in science and scientists?

After all the bickering over vaccines and masks for the past 2+ years, medical science could use a boost. The gravitas of scientists, and indeed all experts, has diminished over the 5 decades since humans walked on the moon. It has been harmed by mercenary scientists who sought to sow doubt about whether smoking caused cancer and whether fossil fuels created climate change. No proof was needed, just doubt.

The trust in science has also been harmed by the vast amount of published medical research that is wrong. An effort was made 20 years ago to rid research of the bias of taking money from drug companies. To my observation, that change produced only a small benefit that has been overwhelmed by the unintended harms. The large, well-funded academic labs of full-time researchers have been replaced with unfunded, undertrained, and inadequately supported part-time junior faculty trying to publish enough articles to be promoted. In my opinion, this change is worse than funding from Big Pharma. (Disclosure – I worked in industry prior to graduate school.)

The pressure to publish reduces skepticism, so more incorrect data are published. The small size of these amateur studies produces unconvincing conclusions that feed an industry of meta-analysis that tries to overcome the deficiencies of the individual studies. This fragmented, biased approach is not how you build, launch, deploy, and operate the JWST, which requires very high reliability.

This approach is not working well for pediatrics either. I look at the history of the recommended workup of the febrile young infant from the 1980s until today. I see constant changes to the guidelines but no real progress toward a validated, evidence-based approach. A similar history is behind treatment of neonatal hyperbilirubinemia. In the 1994 publication, there was a movement toward being less aggressive. The 2004 and 2009 editions increased the frequency of screening and phototherapy. Now, the 2022 guidelines have moved in the direction we were headed in the 1990s. The workup of infants and children with possible urinary tract infections has undergone a similar trajectory. So has the screening for neonatal herpes infections. The practice changes are more like Brownian motion than real progress. This inconsistency has led me to be skeptical of the process the American Academy of Pediatrics uses to create guidelines.

Part of solving complex problems is allowing all stakeholders’ voices to be heard. On Jan. 28, 1986, seconds after liftoff, the space shuttle Challenger exploded. In the aftermath, it was determined that some engineers had expressed concern about the very cold weather that morning. The rubber in the O-ring would not be as flexible as designed. Their objection was not listened to. The O-ring failed, the fuel tank exploded, and the ship and crew were lost. It is a lesson many engineers of my generation took to heart. Do not suppress voices.

For example, 1 year ago (September 2021), the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists published a position statement, “Recognising and addressing the mental health needs of people experiencing gender dysphoria/gender incongruence.” The statement expressed concern about the marked increase in incidence of rapid-onset gender dysphoria and therefore urged more thorough assessment by psychiatry before embarking on puberty-blocking therapies. The RANZCP position is at variance with recent trends in the United States. The topic was censored at the 2021 AAP national conference. Lately, I have heard the words disinformation and homophobic used to describe my RANZCP colleagues. I have been comparing AAP, Britain’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, and Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne guidelines for 20 years. The variation is enlightening. I do not know the correct answer to treating gender dysphoria, but I know suppressing viewpoints and debate leads to exploding spaceships.

Dr. Powell is a retired pediatric hospitalist and clinical ethics consultant living in St. Louis. Email him at

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