‘‘None of the scientists would comment on the record, for fear that it would affect their funding or that of their postdocs and graduate students’’ Nature, September 2012
‘Is science wrong?’ The Economist, frontcover October 2013
I have been very fortunate to come across senior scientists in my career who do not correspond to the stereotype that I put forward below; quite the opposite. I would thus like to make it clear that this piece is not at all aimed at any particular individuals. It is simply a hypothesis as to why science is, or might be, wrong.
The first quote above comes from a news article that accompanied the publication last year of the findings of the ENCODE project consortium, and was part of Nature’s coverage of the project that included a mini-discussion of the (now seemingly) age-old debate about the merits of funding large consortia vs. investigator-led, hypothesis-driven research.
It came back to me recently as I was pondering a podcast from that most esteemed of journalistic news sources, The Economist. In their 2012 review of the year, they (correctly in my view) called the ENCODE publications (there were 30 papers published across 3 journals: Nature, Genome Research and Genome Biology) ‘‘the most significant findings of 2012 in life science’’. Now, in late 2013, they have run a piece, and indeed a front cover, entitled ‘‘Is science wrong?’’. This new discussion examines not the philosophical underpinnings of the scientific method in its modern incarnation, as might be concluded from the title (and front cover); rather, they bring to light a debate that until now has, I think, been largely brushed under the carpet by the scientific establishment. It is one that the huge army of excellent scientists either having been previously, or likely to be in future, forced out of science have long been airing. Perhaps now that someone other than the disenfranchised have made the point, funding agencies and their government paymasters, not to mention senior scientists, will begin to listen.
The criticism boils down, ultimately, to a single contention: that the modern career structure in science contradicts the very aims of science itself. Journals don’t publish repetitions of previous work, funders won’t fund it, and guess what? Scientists won’t do it. Cue massive surprise and outrage when significant proportions of published work are not repeatable. If you recruit some of the brightest people on the planet whose only way to remain doing what they love is to play a system that pits them against each other in an incredibly rudimentary way, then you cannot act surprised and outraged when they play that system to the detriment of the scientific enterprise.
A significant problem exists within the scientific community, however, that perpetuates this wrong: no one who in a position of power seems prepared to change it. To say that science attracts egos is something of an obvious statement to anyone who has ever met a scientist (or read one of their blogs), let alone been to a scientific conference and seen them talk about their work. The scientific career structure at present does not simply allow self-promotion, it absolutely depends upon it. That this is not in the interests of science as a discipline (and of course the future generations of the world who will depend upon its activity for their technology) should be self-evident to anyone with a brain, let alone the superb education of those at the top of the scientific establishment.
However, if the people who get to the top of science have been rigorously selected for their ability for self-promotion, then those same people are very unlikely to set about systematically re-designing the system for the better. It is rather depressingly reminiscent of a careers session that I heard of recently where some young female PhD students were quizzing a (very) leading light of the scientific world about career planning. ‘Families are not an option’ was the gist of the response from the luminary. She was female. A woman who feels she has had to give up the very notion of family life in order to get where she is surely is less likely to advise young women coming after her that they should be entitled to have both career and family. I may be wrong – I am certainly not a scientific luminary, let alone a woman – but I suspect that I am not.
Science shouldn’t be like this. Surely, we actually do know better. So should funders. Some lone voices have been saying this for years and years. Perhaps now some journalists have cottoned on to it, somebody with power will actually listen. It is, quite literally, not rocket science.