The Problems Facing Science, According to Scientists

800px-FDA_microbiologist_working_in_a_biosafety_laboratory_tests_for_high_risk_pathogens_in_foodBy Julia Belluz, Brad Plumer, and Brian Resnick, originally published at Vox.

In the past several years, many scientists have become afflicted with a serious case of doubt — doubt in the very institution of science.

As reporters covering medicine, psychology, climate change, and other areas of research, we wanted to understand this epidemic of doubt. So we sent scientists a survey asking this simple question: If you could change one thing about how science works today, what would it be and why?

We heard back from 270 scientists all over the world, including graduate students, senior professors, laboratory heads, and Fields Medalists. They told us that, in a variety of ways, their careers are being hijacked by perverse incentives. The result is bad science.

The scientific process, in its ideal form, is elegant: Ask a question, set up an objective test, and get an answer. Repeat. Science is rarely practiced to that ideal. But Copernicus believed in that ideal. So did the rocket scientists behind the moon landing.

But nowadays, our respondents told us, the process is riddled with conflict. Scientists say they’re forced to prioritize self-preservation over pursuing the best questions and uncovering meaningful truths.

“I feel torn between asking questions that I know will lead to statistical significance and asking questions that matter,” says Kathryn Bradshaw, a 27-year-old graduate student of counseling at the University of North Dakota.

Today, scientists’ success often isn’t measured by the quality of their questions or the rigor of their methods. It’s instead measured by how much grant money they win, the number of studies they publish, and how they spin their findings to appeal to the public.

“Is the point of research to make other professional academics happy, or is it to learn more about the world?” Noah Grand, former lecturer in sociology, UCLA

Scientists often learn more from studies that fail. But failed studies can mean career death. So instead, they’re incentivized to generate positive results they can publish. And the phrase “publish or perish” hangs over nearly every decision. It’s a nagging whisper, like a Jedi’s path to the dark side.

“Over time the most successful people will be those who can best exploit the system,” Paul Smaldino, a cognitive science professor at University of California Merced, says.

To Smaldino, the selection pressures in science have favored less-than-ideal research: “As long as things like publication quantity, and publishing flashy results in fancy journals are incentivized, and people who can do that are rewarded … they’ll be successful, and pass on their successful methods to others.”

Many scientists have had enough. They want to break this cycle of perverse incentives and rewards. They are going through a period of introspection, hopeful that the end result will yield stronger scientific institutions. In our survey and interviews, they offered a wide variety of ideas for improving the scientific process and bringing it closer to its ideal form.

Before we jump in, some caveats to keep in mind: Our survey was not a scientific poll. For one, the respondents disproportionately hailed from the biomedical and social sciences and English-speaking communities.

Many of the responses did, however, vividly illustrate the challenges and perverse incentives that scientists across fields face. And they are a valuable starting point for a deeper look at dysfunction in science today.

The place to begin is right where the perverse incentives first start to creep in: the money.

This article was originally published at Vox, and is partially reproduced here [with/without] the permission of the author, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.

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One Response to The Problems Facing Science, According to Scientists

  1. Yajnavalkya dasa (ACBSP)

    On a related note: way back in 1990, I worked in a laboratory as a Quality Assurance tech. As such, I had a subscription to R&D (Research and Development) magazine (a trade publication written by and for scientists). In the October 1990 issue of that magazine the readers (research scientists) were questioned and polled about laboratory fraud.

    The first question: “Have you ever witnessed or have you ever had knowledge of any instances where data or research results were changed, ‘fudged’, or otherwise altered to produce more favorable results?” 56% responded “YES”.

    The second question: “Do you, in your work, feel increased pressure to produce research results that support predetermined outcomes?” 42% said “YES”.

    The last question: “Are current regulations and checking systems sufficient to prevent research fraud?” 70% responded “NO”.

    Perhaps even more telling are the anecdotes many of the respondents included with the poll:

    A scientist writes, “The greatest pressure for fraud seems to be with research project managers changing the results of experimental lab work… This is done to save a manager’s pet project, to gain financing, or to save face that was lost on an oversold concept.”

    Another wrote, “I witnessed a project manager select only ‘good’ (but legitimate) data to report. ‘Bad’ data were labeled ‘inaccurate’ and not distributed. I think he was trying to put his program in the best possible light.”

    Still another scientist writes that “The evil, sinful nature of man becomes apparent even amongst the high priests of scientific research. Even a PhD does not make a thief an honest man. Many up-and-coming scientists push their way up by making data look much better than they actually are — standard operating procedure.”

    Another one relates, “Once, while working for a private research institute, I observed data that had been ‘fudged’. I had been assigned the task of reproducing some materials for a company that had paid for research and development of this material. When I was unable to reproduce these materials, I went back to the laboratory record book and found that the original raw data and proper calculations would not produce the physical properties of the materials originally reported.

    “Another time, I overheard a colleague suggest that test data from a particular specimen be thrown away because it did not compare favorably with the other test data.”

    And still another scientist says, “Fudging data is hardly new to science. There is evidence that Isaac Newton ‘cleaned up’ some of his optics data when it did not fit his theories. That alteration of data and suppression of alternative theories held back the development of optics. Present-day hazards of fraud are far more specialized, but, in many ways, more dangerous.

    “If we, as scientists, don’t start acting responsibly and fairly in dealing with fraud, this task might be taken out of our hands by a distrustful public.”

    I realize that this article was from 26 years ago, and am no longer involved in that industry, not for a long time. Does fraud still occur in laboratories? Given human nature, I would say “yes”.

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