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What Is Threatening Science?

Globalization, the digitization of knowledge, and the growing number of scientists all seem, at first glance, like positive trends for the progress of science. But these trends are Janus-faced, for they also encourage a hyper-competitive, trend-driven, and herd-like approach to scientific research.

CAMBRIDGE – Scientific knowledge and technological innovation, as Yuval Noah Harari emphasizes in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, are among the key drivers of economic progress. Yet there is remarkably little reflection taking place about the state of science today, despite significant challenges, rooted in globalization, the digitization of knowledge, and the growing number of scientists.

At first glance, all of these seem to be positive trends. Globalization connects scientists worldwide, enabling them to avoid duplication and facilitating the development of universal standards and best practices. The creation of digital databases allows for systematic mining of scientific output and offers a broader foundation for new investigations. And the rising number of scientists means that more science is being conducted, accelerating progress.

But these trends are Janus-faced. To understand why, one must recognize, first, that science is an ecosystem. Just like any other ecosystem, it is characterized by the push and pull among competing actors. Universities compete to ascend the research rankings. Scientific journals compete to publish the most relevant papers. Conference organizers compete for the most distinguished speakers. Journalists compete for scoops on the most important breakthroughs. Funders compete to identify and support the research that will produce the most significant advances in terms of social impact, security, or commercial profitability.

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