I’ve noticed an increasing amount of blogs and popular media pieces on the vices of science as an institution. Replication, Publication biases, fraud and misconduct, and Scientism vs. Science are my selected themes. Here are some of my favorites, in no particular order:
As someone fairly committed to the death of our solar system and ultimately the entropy of the universe, I think the question of what we should worry about is irrelevant in the end. Also, before reaching that conclusion, natural selection eventually corrects for perturbations that threaten the stability of environments. Nature will find a way and ultimately all things will cease to be. So I could be glib and simply recommend, “Don’t worry, be happy.” Of course, we are not wired that way and being happy requires not worrying. My concern then, rather than worry, is how we go about science and in particular the obsession with impact.
Up until the last century, science was largely the perogative of the independently wealthy who had the resources and time to pursue their passions for discovery. Later, large commercial companies would invest in research and development to gain the edge over competitors by innovating. The introduction of government funding for science in the early part of the 20th century was spurred by wars, economic depression and disease. This not only broadened the scope of research by enabling much larger projects that were not motivated simply by profit, but it created a new profession of the government funded scientist. The end of the 20th century in the UK was the golden period for funding. Since then, there has been significant shrinkage in the West at least, of support for research in science. Today it is much harder to attract funding for research as Governments grapple with the world recession. Unless of course, if that research generates economic wealth.
It used to be the case that for a research grant application, it was expected that the results of any output would be disseminated in the form of publications or presentations at conferences which could be covered in a sentence or two. In the UK today and I expect this also true in the US, a significant proportion of the application must address something called “pathways to impact.” What does that mean exactly? According to the UK research councils’ own guidelines, it has to be a “demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy. Impact embraces all the extremely diverse ways in which research-related knowledge and skills benefit individual, organisations and nations by: fostering global economic performance, and specifically the economic competitiveness of the UK; increasing the effectiveness of public services and policy; enhancing quality of life, health and creative output.” This is not simply a box-ticking exercise. Next year as part of the nationwide assessment of UK research known as the Research Excellence Framework (REF), impact features prominently in the equation.
What’s the problem you might ask? Taxpayer’s money funds research and they need a return on their investment. The first major problem is that it shifts the agenda away from scientific discovery the application of science. I have witnessed in my own department in the past ten years that those who work on theoretical science are not as successful as those who work on application. Moreover, that application is primarily motivated by economic goals. Universities are being encouraged to form partnerships with industry to make-up for the reduction in government funding. This is problematic for two reasons: the practices and agendas of industry conflict with those of the independent researcher and second, many important innovations were not conceived as applications and would probably not have emerged in an environment that emphasized commercial value. I would submit that focusing on impact is a case of putting the cart before the horse or at least not recognizing the value of theoretical work. We would be wise to remember Francis Bacon’s advice that serendipity is a natural consequence of the pursuit of science.
Also many of us work in areas that are difficult to fit into the impact framework. My own research is theoretical. When I am asked to provide a pathway to impact statement, I rely on my experience and enjoyment of public lectures because frankly, the things that interest me do not obviously translate into impact that will foster economic performance. However, public engagement can be problematic especially when addressing issues of concern. Most members of the general public, and more importantly the media that inform them, are not familiar with either the scientific method or statistics. This is one reason why the public is so suspicious of scientists or finds them frustrating because they never seem to give a straight answer when asked to comment on some pertinent topic such as vaccination or health risks. Most non-scientists do not understand explanations that are couched in terms of probability or the complexity of multi-factorial interactions. Each week we see headlines such as “X causes cancer” or the discovery of “Genes for X” which reflect this need to simplify scientific findings.
Finally, most academics themselves have fallen foul of the allure of impact. Every science journal has an impact factor which is a measure of how often articles are cited. It is a reasonable metric but it creates a bias in the scientific process to prioritize those studies that are the most extraordinary. As we have witnessed in the past few years, this has led to the downfall of several high profile scientists who lost their jobs because they fabricated studies that ended up in high impact journals. Why did they do this? For the simple reason that you need impact in order to be a success. My concern is that impact is incompatible with good science because it distorts the process by looking for the immediate payoff and to hell with caution.
Maybe my concern is unwarranted. Science is self-correcting and when the world comes out of recession, we should see a return to the balance between theory and application. Maybe I should have been more alarmist. That way I am sure that I would have made more impact.