Has Modern Science Become Dysfunctional?

The recent explosion in the number of retractions in scientific journals is just the tip of the iceberg and a symptom of a greater dysfunction that has been evolving the world of biomedical research say the editors-in-chief of two prominent journals in a presentation before a committee of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) today.

“Incentives have evolved over the decades to encourage some behaviors that are detrimental to good science,” says Ferric Fang, editor-in-chief of the journal Infection and Immunity, a publication of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), who is speaking today at the meeting of the Committee of Science, Technology, and Law of the NAS along with Arturo Casadevall, editor-in-chief of mBio®, the ASM’s online, open-access journal.

In the past decade the number of retraction notices for scientific journals has increased more than 10-fold while the number of journals articles published has only increased by 44%. While retractions still represent a very small percentage of the total, the increase is still disturbing because it undermines society’s confidence in scientific results and on public policy decisions that are based on those results, says Casadevall. Some of the retractions are due to simple error but many are a result of misconduct including falsification of data and plagiarism.

More concerning, say the editors, is that this trend may be a symptom of a growing dysfunction in the biomedical sciences, one that needs to be addressed soon. At the heart of the problem is an economic incentive system fueling a hypercompetitive environment that is fostering poor scientific practices, including frank misconduct.

The root of the problem is a lack of sufficient resources to sustain the current enterprise. Too many researchers are competing for too little funding, creating a survival-of-the-fittest, winner-take-all environment where researchers increasingly feel pressure to publish, especially in high-prestige journals.

“The surest ticket to getting a grant or job is getting published in a high profile journal,” says Fang. “This is an unhealthy belief that can lead a scientist to engage in sensationalism and sometimes even dishonest behavior to salvage their career.”

Funding is just one aspect of a very complex problem Casadevall and Fang see growing in the biomedical sciences. In a series of editorials in the journal Infection and Immunity they describe their views in detail, arguing that science is not as healthy as it could be or as it needs to be to effectively address the challenges facing humanity in the 21st century.

“Incentives in the current system place scientists under tremendous stress, discourage cooperation, encourage poor scientific practices and deter new talent from entering the field,” they write. “It is time for a discussion of how the scientific enterprise can be reformed to become more effective and robust.”

The answers, they write, must come not only from within the scientific community but from society as a whole that has helped create the current incentive structure that is fostering the dysfunction. In the editorials they outline a series of recommended reforms including methodological, cultural and structural changes.

“In the end, it is not the number of high-impact-factor papers, prizes or grant dollars that matters most, but the joys of discovery and the innumerable contributions both large and small that one makes through contact with other scientists,” they write. “Only science can provide solutions to many of the most urgent needs of contemporary society. A conversation on how to reform science should begin now.”

This article originally appeared on the American Society for Microbiology.


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11 Responses to Has Modern Science Become Dysfunctional?

  1. While this article is not getting at some of the philosophical shortcomings of naturalism, it is highlighting one form of the symptoms of its inner shortcomings. I also like how it again shows that we cannot escape the subjective and the motives of conscious entities even in our best pursuit of the objective world.

    • Dhanistha Devi Dasd

      Is not one of the main causes, the money making behind all of this. Conclusions used to justify pharmacy and medicine. In this Age of Kali Yuga, where everything is smaller and hidden, and as someone who works in the area of medicine, all I see is pharmacy changing human beings into something that does not even resemble a human being, for money, control and power. And, is that not demoniac?

    • Gurunistha dasa

      Nitai, could you clarify which shortcoming you are referring to? Personally I didn’t see it point to any inherent problem but a misuse.

  2. I think the real problem is not with the science itself, but with the fact that currently science and scientists have become nothing more than indentured servants of the vaishyas, or big capital. Thus the motivations and the mentality of that class of people is debasing the true science and true scientists, leading to all sorts of fraud and abuse we see today. Science has also prominently served the kshatriyas, modern military ‘death machine’, which has also lead to it’s corruption. The classic example of that was the development of the atomic weaponry in America. Several prominent scientists working on this project have ultimately become disillusioned with their work. Their protests eventually led to stopping the Operation Crossroads, a series of nuclear weapon tests conducted by the United States at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean in the summer of 1946.

    We devotees should not take the anti-science stand. Such a position is overly simplistic and does not work. Science can have a great value if it is handled correctly by society. The same is true about the religion: when improperly motivated and manipulated by the wrong people, it can be a total disaster. We have all seen it happen.

    • I agree with you Kulapavana but it is incredible to see the politically correct progressive liberals now starting to see that there are very large, well financed conspiracies in the material science realm.

      Not that I have anything against political correctness or progressive liberals just that they tend to dismiss the opinions of anyone who wants the freedom to think outside of their particular model. A couple years ago they were all on board with the futuristic global warming, rule over mankind by a scientific technocracy. Now that the fraud is so large and widespread it is impossible to ignore and have any intellectual credibility.

      I tried to tell some of these scientists that according to vedic scriptures the demigods control the temperatures of the planet etc. but they always dismiss the Vedic viewpoint so what can you do when they think the Vedas are just superstition?

      It seems no matter how you try to adjust the material world it is a miserable place and even the scientific elitist utopianists are ultimately exposed as a society of cheaters and the cheated. That being said all this technology is nice for devotional service because all of Prabhupada’s books are available on Kindle and I can read them very easily while traveling, so science isnt all bad, haha. 🙂

      • I’m a scientist, and a devotee, and I don’t know what you are talking about. If there’s some kind of conspiracy afoot, I’d sure like to be in on it. Life would be so much more interesting.

        By the way, global warming is indeed true. Maybe the demigods are running coal-fired power plants in a global conspiracy to make the whole world as warm as India, thus making vegetarian diets more appealing. Or maybe not. I guess I’m just an elitist utopianist. The weather must be due to Vayu, for it it so written.

  3. “Sustainability”, as a consideration, simply means that technological evolution has just about made the planet uninhabitable.

    This is not to say that there is no place for so-called science. Whatever our domain of endeavor, science or otherwise, the conclusion of the great thinkers, the mahatmas, is that the only way our efforts can be of benefit to all concerned is when we are instruments of Krishna’s mercy.

    Of course, Hitler and Hiroshima are also instruments of Krishna’s mercy – because all of the suffering within the gross nightmare of life in the material realm is only meant to bring us to our senses, so we can begin our march homeward. But that’s the school of hard knocks.

    The goal of modern science is to improve our quality of life. So the question arises as to whether this kind of scientific meddling is on track, or simply misguided, uninformed atheistic endeavor. Afterall, when Maharaja Parikshit was hearing from Sukadev Goswami, no one had a cell phone, computer, 4 X 4, – and yet everyone present was very pleased.

    Perhaps we should question whether technological developement is simply an aspect of the sufferings which Kali Yuga has to offer.

    Srila Rupa Goswami Prabhupada has written in his Bhaktirasamrita Sindhu that pure devotional service automatically implements all-auspiciousness. As vaishnavas we are encouraged to simply aspire to keep body and soul together, and spend the balance of our time and energy in devotional practices.

    Srila Prabhupada insists that our karma is fixed and therefore our enjoyment and our suffering cannot be changed – certainly not by science. Perhaps all this “science” then, is not really science at all. Perhaps real science is the technology of how to get out of this material world, and all else is simply illusory diversion. The carrot on the stick, that keeps the donkey moving forward.

    As was once said by a great biblical personality: What profitith a man if he acquires all of the technological advances this world has to offer, if in the process he doesn’t become a pure devotee?

    On the other hand, what need is there for any worldly technology what-so-ever, if one can go back home, back to Godhead?

  4. In the spirit of yukta-vairagya, we can employ much that science is creating, i.e., technology, transportation,etc., in the service of the Divine Couple. Something wonderful can come from it. Since Krsna is behind everything, He is making so many resources available to us through the sweat of others, while at the same time He engages everyone in His sweet service.

    • Yes, if we are advanced, we can do anything. We can even go to hell for Krishna. But if I go to hell, I may become lost. Therefore Srila Prabhupada’s slogan was “Simple living, high thinking.”

      Yes, the airplane can be used to go and preach. The cell phone can be used for group darshan. Etc. But for a crippled soul like me, chanting on my mala, offering a flower, playing my kartals……. that keeps me safe and secure.

      Still, as you say, everything can be properly engaged, and that is Krishna’s mercy for people of this 21st century.

      Again, these simple practices of sadhana bhakti – although they are a safe way to proceed for the neophyte like myself – we are told that these are the practices going on in Krishna Loka. “susukam kartum avyayam.” Bg. 9/1

  5. Is money dysfunctional? Is electricty dysfunctional? Is the printing press dysfunctional? Obviously these things are neutral. What is actually functional or dysfunctional is the people who use them.

    The greater one’s desire to please Krishna the more Krishna will provide functional intelligence. The more one is self-centered, the more Krishna will provide dysfunctional intelligence. That is Krishna’s program.

    Krishna’s program is functional, engaging His devotees as His instruments, and discouraging the non-devotees in their illusory persuits so that eventually they may enquire about the purpose of life. So ultimately, everything in creation is functional.

  6. All of us are seeking the highest pleasure. Only that which provides us with that pleasure, then, is “functional”. And that which cannot provide us with the highest pleasure is “dysfunctional”.

    Krishna is the reservoir of pleasure. So we can say confidently, that science which enables us to connect lovingly with Krishna is functional. And that so-called science that does not enable us to connect lovingly with Krishna is dysfunctional.

    Again, anything and everything in this material realm, when considered without relation to Krishna is like so many zeros. But when we see them in relation to Krishna, it is like putting the 1 before all of these zeros, giving them tremendous value and meaning. In this sense, material science is neither functional nor dysfunctional. But the facilities and technologies that material science provides become qualified according to the consciousness with which we perceive them.

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