When I first saw the headline of a recent NPR article entitled “The Story Behind the Worst Measles Outbreak in the European Union“, the immediate thought that went through my mind was, “Oh good, it’s not just here in the United States.” It was followed closely by, “Damn, it’s not just here in the United States.”
It seems that for every triumphant news article you read about the latest scientific achievements, another one comes along shortly thereafter describing the latest rejection of said scientific achievements. From the movement against vaccination to constant denials of humanity’s influence of climate change, it seems as if the world suddenly declared open season on a century’s worth of hard-won knowledge. I know that I’m not the only one looking around and asking, “What gives?”
In an article published in November 2017, Drs. Marc Edwards and (then-Ph.D. candidate) Siddhartha Roy offered their opinion on the matter in a damning critique on modern scientific research. In short, they argue that the well-known “publish or perish” model undermines the perception of science as a public good:
We argue that over the past half-century, the incentives and reward structure of science have changed, creating a hypercompetition among academic researchers. Part-time and adjunct faculty now make up 76 per cent of the academic labour force, allowing universities to operate more like businesses, making tenure-track positions much more rare and desirable. Increased reliance on emerging quantitative performance metrics that value numbers of papers, citations and research dollars raised has decreased the emphasis on socially relevant outcomes and quality. There is also concern that these pressures could encourage unethical conduct by scientists and the next generation of STEM scholars who persist in this hypercompetitive environment. We believe that reform is needed to bring balance back to the academy and to the social contract between science and society, to ensure the future role of science as a public good.https://aeon.co/essays/science-is-a-public-good-in-peril-heres-how-to-fix-it
Are they right? Well, anecdotally I’d sure have to say “yes”. In three-and-a-half-years as a graduate student, I’ve seen my advisor work daily to secure funding for our research group. I’ve proofread and edited a number of grant applications written by sleep-deprived postdoctoral researchers. And I’ve watched senior doctoral students struggle with repeated paper rejections that threaten their dreams of working in academia.
I also agree with many of the suggestions that Drs. Edwards and Roy offer:
- Openly acknowledging the problems of perverse incentives and hypercompetition;
- Developing a list of best practices for hiring and promoting faculty;
- Providing instruction to undergraduate and graduate students about the perils of research misconduct;
- And encouraging universities to move away from purely using quantitative metrics ripe for abuse.
I’m skeptical, however, that any or all of these steps alone will be enough. Here’s why: I think that all of the problems that the good doctors highlight are symptoms of a much larger issue — one of economics. From my perspective, the abuse of quantitative metrics seems to stem from a basic supply and demand problem: not enough supply (research funding) for the growing demand (growing numbers of Ph.D.s). Consequently, the two possible solutions are:
- Increase research funding levels.
- Decrease the number of researchers.
The former seems unlikely given public opinion and increased national debt; the latter seems just as implausible given the drive to produce a highly-educated workforce. And as with all economic problems, the solution is never purely technical in nature; just replacing quantitative metrics leaves the door open for some other form of abuse to take root, which will only further damage the reputation of science.
The truth, I believe, is that our society will need to prioritize at some point which is more important: scientific achievement or fiscal responsibility. As a researcher and a taxpayer, I find myself straddling the gap. I’m left hoping that a responsible compromise appears — as that NPR headline shows, the consequences of science declining even further in the public eye are grim.