Wednesday, September 3, 2014
8

Science, Heal Thyself

NEW YORK – Science may be humankind’s greatest success as a species. Thanks to the scientific revolution that began in the seventeenth century, humans today enjoy instant communication, rapid transportation, a rich and diverse diet, and effective prevention and treatment for once-fatal illnesses. Moreover, science is humanity’s best hope for addressing such existential threats as climate change, emerging pathogens, extra-terrestrial bolides, and a burgeoning population.

But the scientific enterprise is under threat from both external and internal forces. Now the scientific community must use its capacity for self-correction – based on new information, discoveries, experiences, and ideas (the stuff of scientific progress for centuries) – to address these threats.

A major hindrance to scientific progress is the increasing scarcity of research funding – a trend that has been exacerbated by the global economic crisis. Uncertain funding prospects not only discourage scientists from pursuing risky or undirected lines of research that could lead to crucial discoveries; they also make it more difficult to recruit the best and brightest for scientific careers, especially given the extensive training and specialization that such careers require.

Furthermore, leaders from across the political spectrum are questioning scientifically-established principles – such as anthropogenic climate change, evolution, and the benefits of vaccination – with no scientific basis. At best, such statements serve as a distraction from important issues; at worst, they distort public policy. Although such threats are outside of scientists’ direct control, improved communication with political leaders and the public could help to reduce misinformation and bolster confidence in science.

But the field’s credibility is also being undermined from within, by the growing prevalence of scientific misconduct – reflected in a recent spate of retracted scientific publications – and an increasingly unbalanced scientific workforce that faces perverse incentives. Although the vast majority of scientists adhere to the highest standards of integrity, the corrosive effects of dishonest or irreproducible research on science’s credibility cannot be ignored.

The problems are rooted in the field’s incentive structure – a winner-take-all system in which grants, prizes, and other rewards go to those who publish first. While this competitive mentality is not new in science – the seventeenth-century mathematicians Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz spent more than a decade fighting bitterly for credit for the discovery of calculus – it has intensified to the point that it is impeding progress.

Indeed, scientists today are engaged in a hypercompetitive race for funding and prestigious publications that has disconnected their goals from those of the public that they serve. Last year, for example, when C. Glenn Begley and Lee Ellis sought to reproduce 53 “landmark” preclinical cancer studies, they discovered that nearly 90% of the findings could not be reproduced. While the researchers who originally published those studies may have profited from increased funding and recognition, the patients who need new cancer treatments gained nothing.

Moreover, this winner-take-all system fails to account for the fact that scientific work is largely carried out by research teams rather than individuals. As a result, the scientific workforce is beginning to resemble a pyramid scheme: unfair, inefficient, and unsustainable.

The incentives associated with the winner-take-all system encourage cheating – ranging from questionable practices and ethical lapses to outright misconduct. This threatens to create a vicious cycle in which misconduct and sloppy research are rewarded, undermining both the scientific process and its credibility.

The problems are clear. But addressing them requires a prudent strategy that accounts for the structural fragility of the scientific enterprise, in which scientists must complete extensive training, regulation can easily stifle creativity, and funding limitations can substantially delay progress.

Because of this fragility, few countries have been able to establish highly productive scientific enterprises, even though scientific innovation and technological breakthroughs are crucial to a country’s productivity, economic growth, and influence. Given the challenges implicit in establishing and maintaining a robust scientific sector, reform efforts must be undertaken carefully.

At the same time, the reforms must be comprehensive, addressing methodological, cultural, and structural issues. Methodological reforms should include revised training requirements that allow for less specialization, together with improved training in probability and statistics. Scientific culture must be reformed to abandon longstanding practices, such as those that determine how credit is assigned. And structural reforms aimed at balancing the scientific workforce and stabilizing funding are crucial.

Some reforms should be fairly easy to implement. For example, it would not be difficult to win support for improving education in the ethical aspects of scientific research. But other important reforms, such as creating alternatives to the winner-take-all incentive system, will present enormous challenges.

An effective reform strategy should employ the tools of science – specifically, data collection and analysis. More data are needed to understand workforce imbalances, the peer review system, and how the economics of the scientific enterprise influence scientists’ behavior.

Science has been studied by sociologists, historians, and philosophers, but rarely by scientists themselves. Now, with perverse incentives undermining their credibility and hampering research, scientists must take matters into their own hands. Applying the scientific method to the problems of science could be scientists’ best hope for regaining public confidence and reinvigorating the quest for transformative discoveries.

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  1. CommentedRavi Shanghavi

    An interesting read, and eloquently written article.

    It seems that political influences on sciences have become somewhat limiting to individuals in this field, which is a dreadful shame as independent study (away from the manipulation or commission of a governing body) is the only true science.

    I hope that a science standars agency, or something similar, could be formed in order to regulate such corruption.

    Our Western countries have made ourselves wealthy and reputable from our science, it would be a fatal error to allow this sector of our society to become corrupted.

    - Ravi Shanghavi Ottawa

  2. CommentedBill Hunt

    Science is not a democracy, the majority does not rule. There are only endless cycles of observation, hypothesis, experimentation and publication. If scientific knowledge depended on public confidence we would have never made it past Galileo.

    Scientific enterprise has alway existed in the context of its political, social and historical milieu. Certainly, as the economic fruits of scientific knowledge have increased, so have these forces been multiplied, be they in genetics or energy production.

    To view the discussion in terms of right-wing or left-wing is to miss the point. Lysenko's fate was always sealed. In the age of Google it is definitely not a winning strategy.

  3. CommentedMike Nelson

    The problem is that academic science is in an ideological straitjacket which has severely damaged its credibility. All dissent is crushed by academics bent on maintaining the prevailing scientific dogmas. It is all done with a decidedly left-wing bias. The public sees all this and knows that something is wrong when government funds academic research for a particular outcome. Politically-driven government funding has corrupted academic science research. The public knows it and so do the academics who are denied funding because it does not conform to the prevailing bias. It is a bad situation that is becoming worse.

  4. Portrait of Nils-Göran Areskoug

    CommentedNils-Göran Areskoug

    The critique is valid. And the suggested method--applying the scientific method to the problems of science--may well be the best option.

    However, the rules of science in society have never been scientific. Science has always been deeply embedded in society, but in a variety of ways. One problem is politicization of its governance and organizational framework. Another problem where policy is heading.

    As the gap between "truth focus" and "power focus" is widening quickly a dialogue open to reconsidering key interrelations between science and society is urgently needed.

    But it is often in the order of things we err. Therefore--in order to replace or adjust the present system--one has to ask, first, what the "guiding vision" for the interrelationship should be. Then, what incentives must be set to work to get there?

    Finally, we are back again to considering "philosophical issues" like "what science is for", and, on what fundamental values it should rely. We remain incapable of solving the equation without conducting a prudent reflection in social epistemology.

  5. CommentedLeonard Freedman

    Competition for limited resources, the pressure to publish, and the problem of irreproducible findings can all be addressed through adoption of biological standards. A coordinated effort to develop and apply uniform biological standards grows increasingly important—especially where patient outcomes and public health are impacted. Although biomedical products and therapies used in clinical research are highly regulated, and preclinical research must meet compliance requirements for some materials, the development of biological standards remains highly fragmented . Raising awareness of both the importance of and need for biological standards is the first step. The second is catalyzing effective dialogue among the stakeholder groups, including government, industry, academia, and NGOs such as patient advocacy groups.

    Leonard Freedman, President, Global Biological Standards Institute, www.gbsi.org

  6. CommentedEdward Ponderer

    The problem is quite aptly described, and indeed the answer is scientific.

    First the problem statement:
    Scientists are falling into a corrupt, egoistic power structure for internal and external reasons. The internal reason is the rise of universal human egoism in our times. The external reason is that the scientific establishment has fallen into a corrupt, egoistic power structure for internal and external reasons. The internal reasons are said scientists, the external reasons is because the general political and economic system has fallen into a corrupt egoistic power structure for internal and external reasons. The internal reasons are the corrupt, egoistic power structure of all groups in society, and the external reason is the overall ego corruption of all Humanity.

    Short Version:
    Internal and external reasons wrap around to a common human atomic level. And this level is an attitude, to borrow from an old James Bond movie title, "live and let die."

    Bottom Line Version:
    If this keeps up, we're all going die.

    Solution:
    We have an unstable atom. Stabilize it.

    Method:
    Structure must be maintained if you want an atom that can lead to the macro-molecules of life. Similarly differences between scientists, and just plain folks, should not be erased but savored -- yes, even to the point of jealousy and disdain. Like plus and minus charges on a battery -- or physical atom -- viva la difference! -- But, there must be a love over hatred. The strong and weak and strong nuclear forces -- and they are one -- overpower all "hatred" and keeps the atom intact without crushing its differentiation. And here lies the secret of all successful systems in nature from the atom to the cosmos.

    So how to make the human behavioral atom overcome ego -- to go from "live and let die," to "live and let live," and finally to mutual love and responsibility so that we all might live?

    Ah, here the answer is before us -- demanded by the globalization which is upon us and will not stomach such corruption anymore. (1) Use our eyes to see that all of our fates are each of our fates. (2) Engross ourselves in integral education -- train in the psychology of working in the collaboration and mutual care in place of cut-throat competition and cutting each others throats. (3) Use the great Madison Avenue approach to consumerism for the purpose of Humanity's ultimate self-help approach -- the promotion of a new environment, societal mores where the "cool" people are the ones who contribute to making everyone's life better, rather than baseball players, rock stars, primadonna actors & actresses, the rich/powerful/stylish, and the just plain bullies. [Not just the kids on the playground -- the "kid's" who write the nasty, humiliating pieces on peoples personal embarrassment gone viral on the WEB, etc.]

    When Humanity starts to have this kind of behavioral atomic structure of human relations, then globalization will turn from nightmare to blessing. Then, and only then, will scientists become as pure as scientific true.

    And until that day, it remains a questions of "Who guards the guards?" The present scientists who are on corruption railroad with the rest of us? -- Dream on sucker...

  7. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    I agree, science as most of human institutions is in crisis.
    And I also agree part of it is due to the "winner takes all" mentality.
    But this same mentality has soured, and slowly undermined everything else in our lives.
    The ruthless competition, succeeding on the expense of others has driven us into the global crisis.
    This is all due to our inherent human nature, as our whole evolution is based on the development of our ego, and by today the human ego reached its maximum strength, we lost any shame, shyness, the gloves have come off in all arenas.
    The same self-centered mentality caused also that almost all our our greatest inventions, breakthroughs have turned into weapons, or means to achieve profit, some of them like antibiotics have been so overused that created much more dangerous organisms that they were supposed to combat.
    But this is only part of the matter.
    The other very important point we start to reach is questioning the objectivity of our research. It is not necessarily political process or cheating that creates highly controversial and many times totally opposing research results. Today we have high level studies in all fields of research, from highly respected centers, published in peer review journals, seemingly faultlessly executed, still fully contradicting each other.
    Especially through the development of quantum physics we start to understand that our perception and thus our research of reality is fully observer dependent.
    Unless we could create a totally objective, human independent research field we simply have no opportunity to arrive to absolute results. As if the researcher has to come "out of himself/herself", from any subjective evaluation in order to look at reality properly.
    On top of that as humanity has evolved into a global, interconnected and interdependent network, today even the most brilliant researcher has no opportunity to achieve anything without mutually cooperating with others, creating a benevolently complementing team, where the participants are capable of rising above their own mind, and engraved ideas in order to build, create something common, something new, in a way that when they combine their forces it is not simply the summation of their input, but it creates something completely new.
    Only such mutually coordinating research teams, where each participant is capable of subduing himself/herself to others in order to create some common new can be successful taking modern research forward, and their achievements can only be sustainable and long term if they do it for the benefit of others, not in order to gain profit or create weapons with their work.
    Thus by the end we reached a "utopia" considering where we truly stand today, although the rules are valid, without such ideal cooperation for the right purposes, without an objective standpoint 'above the self" we have no chance of progressing.

  8. Commentedlee kus

    There's no global funding crisis. Humans have created vast piles of wealth but the greedy don't want to be taxed to make the investment in progress. It won't end well if we don't change.

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