After my discussion about Reiner Grundmann’s Nature Comment, someone made me aware of an article called saving science. It’s rather long and has already been described as the the largest (and most verbose) strawman ever. His basic argument seems to be that science isn’t self-correcting and that to save it scientists must come out of the lab and into the real world.
One immediate issue is that the author appears to have largely mixed up science and engineering and appears to be suggesting that to save science, it must become engineering. Well, that’s not really saving it, it’s changing it. As a society, if we decide that [a]bsent their real-world validation through technology, scientific truths would be mere abstractions, then we could choose to change what we support, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that this would somehow save science. Of course, I think this would be wrong; I think there is merit in fundamental science, applied science, engineering, and technology and we should be careful of assuming that the only research that has value is that which has an obvious application.
However, I have a few more fundamental issues with the article. The author is Daniel Sarewitz, Professor of Science and Society at Arizona State University. The topic of this article is – as I understand it – his research area, and yet it all seems rather sloppy. He doesn’t do – in my view – a good job of distinguishing between the different research areas and between applied and fundamental research. He also makes a number of assertions that seem poorly justified. For example:
While most of the evidence of poor scientific quality is coming from fields related to health, biomedicine, and psychology, the problems are likely to be as bad or worse in many other research areas.
On what basis does he conclude that it is likely to be as or worse in many other research areas. Does he have any real evidence for this? He also suggests that
… the system that each year generates twenty-five thousand promising new Ph.D. scientists and nearly two million new articles of mostly dubious value ….
On what basis does he conclude that the two million new articles [are] of mostly dubious value? I appreciate that there is probably a lot of poor research out there, but suggesting that they are of mostly dubious value seems a rather strong claim. There are many reasons why we undertake research, and quantifying the value of a piece of research is extremely difficult.
However, some of what he says does have merit. There are clearly some problems that we could aim to resolve. Universities are now run much more like businesses than they once were and, hence, they certainly value research that can bring in funding over that which might still be good, but won’t attract as much money. There is a definite publish or perish mentality. What we value can also incentivise behaviour that may not be ideal; we’re all expected to show that our research has impact and this pressure can lead to a tendency to over-hype results.
But let’s think about this for a moment. The author of this piece is a Professor of Science and Society who is claiming that science is self-destructing and must be saved by coming out into the real world. Could this be? Possibly, but on the other hand a Professor of Science and Society who says “there are some problems with how we conduct research, but – overall – it’s been amazingly successful and we must be careful not to fix what ain’t broke” won’t have nearly as much impact as one who claims that it’s fundamentally flawed and needs a complete overhaul.
Of course, this is clearly a complex topic, and some of what he says does have merit. I may also misunderstand some of what he was suggesting. So, if anyone has any views of their own, feel free to make them through the comments. Standard moderation/comment rules apply 🙂