Reform the Extractive Nature of Scientific Practice
Science is everywhere in our modern world. We can look at any news outlet and chances are that we will run into some exciting bit of new science, perhaps even a breakthrough: a new elementary particle; yet another planet circling a distant star; another promising development in the fight against cancer… But then we look around and we see that our daily lives aren’t undergoing any corresponding dizzying changes: our transportation relies on the gasoline engine that has been around for over a century; chemicals invented a lifetime ago support our food production; our good health still derives largely from vaccines, antibiotics and surgery, techniques which originated about a century ago.
Our foundational technologies, those that support the basics of modern life, rest on old science. There are many welcome refinements and improvements, to be sure, but little that is fundamentally new: cars are more efficient, but for the most part they still run on hydrocarbon chemistry; surgery is safer and less traumatic, but hopes of nonintrusive body repair at cellular level remain elusive. Even our endlessly elaborate electronic gadgets are based on the transistor, an invention that is more than half a century old. And we still die of cancer and heart disease… Despite all the feverish research, why is tangible, beneficial progress so slow?
Furthermore, amid the stream of exciting science news we find darker snippets: students and junior researchers suffering from depression and burnout; some rising academic star going down in flames when it is discovered that his career was built on fraudulent research; fraudulent journals offering to put the stamp of “peer review” on anything, for a fee 1 . What is really happening with science today?
In order to understand, we must look at how scientific research is paid for. For the most part, practitioners of science, either individuals or research groups, compete for grants that the wider society funds with taxes. Their competition, however, is not a race in which all runners compete on equal footing. Rather, it resembles a Monopoly game or an actual market competition, where the participants’ wealth increases the likelihood and size of the winnings 2 .
The wealth in this game is not the grant money itself, which must be spent on scientific work, but professional prestige. Prestige is measured in publication counts, titles, previous grant awards and the like. Participants use what prestige they have to extract what grant resources they can, and they convert these resources into further prestige by means of doing scientific research. This prestige is then re-invested into acquiring additional grants. We must understand that the participants must maintain this cycle if they want to stay in the game, and the only way to survive is by increasing one’s store of prestige: advancement of science is subservient to this goal.
(This is not to impute wholesale dishonesty to the scientific community, but the present system of rewards and penalties dictates the priorities and the participating scientists must follow them, regardless of personal preferences.)
We see right away that this game demands risk-avoidance. Researchers must generate the quota of prestige that is required to continue the cycle and will naturally choose safer, more tractable investigations which will reliably yield the necessary publication or two in time for the next grant application. It is possible to make incremental progress in this manner, but daring, far-reaching investigations are discouraged from the start because they are unlikely to survive long enough to bear fruit. Quite to the contrary, since significant discoveries are naturally rare, ever more frivolous findings are exploited to fulfill the demand for prestige.
When the competitive pressure becomes intense enough, it tempts researchers into darker practices: the same unit of work may be chopped up into several publications or published twice, all to generate maximum prestige from a given investigation. Then there’s selective reporting of “best” results, data massaging, and the occasional outright fabrication. But even research that is nominally above reproach serves only as a means to an end, yielding results that are superficial, fragmented, and often of no consequence 3 .
This bazaar-like practice of science has prevailed for the last half-century or so, with dubious results. It has filled libraries with scientific publications to the point of bursting, but the larger failure is there for all to see: one after another, the exciting headlines fade from the news, there is little follow-up in the years to come, and the great volume of research runs off into the sand.
We may reasonably ask whether the fault lies in the conversion of scientific results into usable technology. This conversion has its own problems but it is mostly kept focused by the profit motive and the market dynamics. There are inevitable implementation difficulties, as well as popular resistance to certain technologies, such as genetic engineering, but technology development shows no signs of fragmentation and drift inherent in the research funding model.
The taxpaying public has neither the expertise nor a venue through which to assert its interest in the bargain, and cannot correct the extractive, self-serving nature of current scientific practice. In so many words, the public is expected to provide monetary support and be satisfied with whatever it receives in return. It is not surprising that it doesn’t receive much.
This one-sided deal is not sustainable and will, in the end, only encourage anti-scientific attitudes that are already present in modern societies. As the world grapples with large-scale problems that will require all the scientific ability we can muster, it will not be helpful if the public perceives the science community as a parasitic class, squandering money on frivolous things. Serious reforms are needed.
First of all, the directionless, wasteful science bazaar must come to an end and be replaced with a sustained commitment to fewer, but worthwhile, research projects. The public will have to give its consent, by direct vote or through its representatives, that a proposed project is of sufficient public benefit, and they will be entitled to an estimate of the likelihood of success. The scientific community will, in turn, assess whether the goal is realistic and provide the estimate of the probability of success. This will not be an easy reform to undertake, but other publicly funded activities, such as infrastructure and education, for example, operate under a reasonable degree of public consent and accountability; there is no compelling reason for science to be exempt from this.
Furthermore, sustained, long-term research will have to be managed by people who are actual managers. This idea is anathema to academic scientists but a good case can be made for it. Large technical projects, such as space exploration missions and particle accelerators, are often praised as inspiring examples of “big science.” These projects are, in reality, feats of engineering rather than science proper but they have an impressive record of success and are always formally managed. Good management serves the vital purpose of preventing the project from falling apart due to conflicting self-interests of the participants.
And thirdly, participating researchers must be given reasonable leeway when proposing and carrying out their specific part of the investigation — it is difficult to see how research could be done otherwise. However, individual contributions must be evaluated against relevant, tangible criteria and with the advancement of the project in mind; not in the current, increasingly meaningless terms of accumulated prestige.
Some readers will no doubt object that such an approach would stifle science with rules and regulations, depriving it of spontaneity and creative insight. But let us be honest: free creative innocence existed only in the early, precarious days of scientific endeavour. Contemporary scientists are not autonomous agents but employees of larger institutions, keenly preoccupied with their standing in the professional hierarchy. Meanwhile, scientific research and education are nationally important undertakings of all industrial countries. The supporting public is entitled to an honest assessment of what it is getting in return for its support, and how soon. Making it clear what the goals, obligations and expectations are can only be beneficial to everyone involved.
Lastly, let us retain our confidence in the better side of human nature. There are many sincere practitioners of science, often young researchers who wish to do good work and who chafe at unreasonable requirements and the wasteful, self-serving hierarchy of the scientific enterprise. They deserve a more decent consideration than the one their chosen profession gives them now.
Science has been a great source of good to humanity but there is no guarantee that it will remain great and good automatically, without our conscious effort. A course correction is needed; we are convinced that a more cohesive atmosphere, steady institutional support, and commitment to larger common goals will once again bring out the creative best in those who devote themselves to science.
This article was specialist edited by Katrina Wesencraft and copy-edited by Dzachary Zainudden.
- For an amusing sports analogy, look here https://www.nature.com/news/our-obsession-with-eminence-warps-research-1.22251