UW News

March 30, 2012

Restoring credibility and the joy of discovery to science

UW Health Sciences/UW Medicine

Reforming Science Part 1 and Part 2

American Society of Microbiology: Has science become dysfunctional?

The number of scientific papers that have had to be retracted has climbed more than tenfold over the past decade, while the number of articles published rose by less than half.  Taking back erroneous reports is one of many troubling symptoms of a scientific enterprise in need of an overhaul.

On Tuesday, March 27, a National Academy of Sciences panel, the Committee on Science, Technology and the Law, heard testimony from the editors of research journals on the unhealthy state of science.  The editors also presented ideas to restore the ailing system to health.

Curiosity, a desire to know how things work and a drive to better the world are what originally drew many people to scientific research.

Curiosity, a desire to know how things work and a drive to better the world are what originally drew many people to scientific research.Wikimedia

One of those testifying was the editor-in-chief of the journal Infection and Immunity, Dr. Ferric C. Fang. He is a professor of microbiology and laboratory medicine at the University of Washington and a UW Medicine physician. With him was colleague Dr. Arturo Casadevall, editor-in-chief of mBio. Cadadevail is a professor of microbiology, immunology and medicine and chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, N.Y.

Failure to keep the scientific house in order is having a “corrosive impact,” they argued.  Despite many successes, they said, science is threatened by anti-scientific attitudes and public skepticism, as witnessed, for example, by the growing percentage of Americans each year who do not believe there is a scientific consensus on global warming.  There are also in-house concerns that include scientists dissatisfaction with the business of science, a shortage of job opportunities in academia for recent trainees, and their feeling that the rise in errors and misconduct sullies their profession.

What is causing the steel girders of scientific integrity to crumple?

“The current economic structure of science creates potent incentives for misconduct, bias and other questionable scientific practices,” Fang noted in an e-mail.  “These conditions have slowly evolved over such a long period of time that most scientists simply accept them as normal. Unfortunately they tend to undermine both the credibility and the reliability of science.”

Fang and Casadevall co-authored a two-part editorial in Infection and Immunity on the signs of dysfunction in contemporary science and the need for reform.  They also have a condensed version of their essay on reforming science planned for publication in Microbe, the monthly news magazine of the American Society for Microbiology.

What they propose is a comprehensive re-structuring that would allow science to be more fruitful and less fretful.

“History has shown that great institutions benefit from reform,” they wrote, “and science is no exception.”

They are advocating for an emphasis on quality rather than quantity of published scientific papers, and a more cooperative and collaborative culture among scientists.  The desire to publish first has many researchers rushing in secret to outdo the competition.  Scientists are rewarded by being the first to publish discoveries in prestigious journals that frown on sharing – what  they  perceive as leaking — of information beforehand.

True scientific progress would be better served, the commentators believe, by a more open, collegial approach in solving difficult questions.  They also say it is time to address other issues related to scientific productivity, including time-consuming grant processes and worry over continued funding.

“Todays scientists must be self-promoting entrepreneurs whose work is driven not only by curiosity but by political concerns and quests for funding,” was their observation on the sorry state of affairs.

“While some competition is inarguably good for science,” they observe, “excessive competition is demoralizing, destructive, and counterproductive.”

Science is also being fettered by an over-emphasis on practical applications and utilitarian purposes, and targeted research funding, they said.  It is losing the “transformative value of basic research” in which exploration goes in unpredictable directions and leads to unimaginable discoveries.

Fang and Casadevall also said that obstacles to recruiting the best and brightest students to scientific careers should be removed by offering clear career trajectories and accurate assessments of job prospects. Career paths could be more flexible to encourage talented people to enter and remain in the sciences.

The “leaky pipeline” of women in science careers, they point out, stems from an understandable unwillingness to sacrifice all to the god of professional achievement. Moreover, nationwide, scientists who are mothers are less likely to obtain tenure than are fathers or women without children.

The commentators also suggested specifics on helping other scientists avoid honest mistakes that compromise scientific quality.  Among these is education in logic and in drawing sound conclusions as well as checklists to provide guidance when they record their data, prepare their reports, produce their images and tables, and analyze their findings.

Fang and Casadevall called for a renewed investment in science hand-in–hand with wiser decisions about how scientific innovation is funded. They cite an economic report described by J. Nocera in The New York Times that endorses a renewed and sustained government investment in infrastructure, science and technology.

“This time, it really is different,” Nocera quoted one of the report’s authors as saying, “Labor costs will never be lower. Equipment costs will never be lower. The cost of capital will never be lower. Why wait?”

Fang said that it is uncertain at this time what the next steps of the National Academy of Sciences committee will be.

“One possible outcome,” he predicted, “is that they will commission a study that culminates in a written report to highlight the problems and possible solutions. In turn this could lead to constructive discussions with policy makers.”

“It is my strong viewpoint,” Fang stressed, “that science cannot fix its problems without political support.”

He and Casadevall are rallying for a cultural change in which scientists re-discover what drew them to research in the first place:

“In the end, it is not the number of high-impact-factor papers, prizes or grant dollars that matters most, but the joys of discovery and the innumerable contributions that one makes, both large and small, through contact with other scientists.”