Friday, May 25, 2012

You scientist, we want you to get ahead....but not too FAR ahead!

A paper in the June issue of BioEssays is titled "Collegiality and careerism trump critical questions and bold new ideas" and, no, we didn't write it.  The subtitle is "A student’s perspective and solution": the author is Joshua Nicholson, a grad student at Virginia Polytech.  It's a mark of the depth of the problem that it is recognized and addressed by a student, in a very savvy and understanding way.  But of course it's students who will most feel its impact as they begin their careers when money is tight and the old boy network is alive and well. The situation is so critical today that even a student can sense it without the embittering experience of years of trying to build a post-training career.
As students we are taught principles and ideals in classrooms, yet as we advance in age, experience, and career, we learn that such lessons may be more rhetoric than reality.
Nicholson is not the first to notice that the current system of funding and rewards encourages more of the same, not innovation.  Scientists, he notes, are discouraged from having radical, or even new ideas in everything from grant applications to even just expression of ideas.  Indeed, numerous examples exist of brilliant scientists who have said they couldn't have done their work within the system; Darwin, Einstein, and whatever you think of Gaia, its conceptor, but also innovative inventor, James Lovelock, has said the same (and he did so recently on BBC Radio 4's The Life Scientific). Other creative people, in the arts, have felt the same way about universities (e.g., Wordsworth the poet, Goya the painter).

The US National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation both pay lip service to innovation, yes, but still within the same system of application and decision-making.  Nicholson says that the NIH and NSF in fact admit that these efforts are not encouraging innovation (as those of us who have been on such panels and never seen an original project actually funded--usually the reviewers pat the proposer on the head patronizingly and say make it safe and resubmit).  He blames this, correctly, on the review structure; peer review.  Yes, experts in a field are required to evaluate new ideas, but it is they who are often most unwilling to accept them.

To be fair, usually this is not explicit and reviewers may usually not even be aware of their inertial resistance to novelty.  But Nicholson explains that:
(i) they helped establish the prevailing views and thus believe them to be most correct, (ii) they have made a career doing this and thus have the most to lose, and (iii) because of #1 and #2 they may display hubris [2–4, 9, 10]. If, historically, most new ideas in science have been considered heretical by experts [11], does it make sense to rely upon experts to judge and fund new ideas?
He concludes that a student looking to build a career therefore must choose between getting funding by following the crowd and doing more of the same, or being innovative but without any money... that is, driving a taxi.

He goes on to say that the system not only encourages safe science, but cronyism as well.  We would add that this includes hierarchies, which foster obedience by many to the will of the few.  Because the researcher's affiliation, collaborators, co-authors, publication record and so on are a part of the whole grant package, it's impossible for reviewers to not use this information in their judgments and review a grant impartially. As Nicholson puts it, the whole emphasis is on a scientist "being liked" by the scientific community.  Negative findings are rarely published, which in effect means that scientists can't disagree with each other in print, and peer review ensures that scientists stay within the fold.  Nicholson believes this has all created a culture of mediocrity in science.  We can say from experience that submitting grants anonymously is unlikely to work because, like 'anonymous' manuscripts sent out for review, one can almost always guess the authors.

There is of course a problem.  Most off-center science is going to go nowhere.  Real innovation is a small fraction of ideas that claim it (sincerely or as puffery).   Accepted wisdom has been hard-won and that's a legitimate reason to resist.  So not all those whose ideas are off base are brilliant or right. How one tells in advance is the question that's a problem because there's no good way, and that provides a ready-made excuse for generic resistance.

Nicholson's solution to restructuring "the current scientific funding system, to emphasize new and radical work"?  He proposes that the grant review system change to include non-scientists who don't understand the field, as well as scientists who do. "Indeed," he says, "the participation of uninformed individuals in a group has recently been shown to foster democratic consensus and limit special interests." And, "crowd funding" has been successful in a lot of non-scientific arenas, he notes, and could conceivably be used to fund grants as well.

It will come as no surprise to regular MT readers to know that we endorse Joshua Nicholson's indictment of the current system.  Peer review seems necessary, brilliant and democratic, and it was established largely and explicitly to break up and prevent Old Boy networking, and make public research funding more 'public'.  Indeed, money no longer goes quite so exclusively to the Elite universities.  But politicians promise things to get a crowd of funders, who want the rewards.  And even that, like any system, can be gamed, and a pessimist (or realist?) is likely to argue that after you've relied on it for a while, it produces just the kind of stale, non-democratic, old boy network that Nicholson describes--similar hierarchies even with many of the same hierarchs resurfacing.

It's unlikely that the grant system will undergo radical transformation any time soon, because too many people would have to be dislodged, though, perhaps when the old goats retire and get out of the way, that will smooth the way.   But there are rumblings in the world of scientific publishing, and demands for change, and this makes us hopeful that perhaps these growing challenges to the system can have widespread effects in favor of innovation and a more egalitarian sharing of the wealth (in the form of academic positions, grant money, publications, and so on).  The demands are coming from scientists boycotting Elsevier Publishing because they are profiting handsomely from the scientists' free labor; scientists and others petitioning for open and free access to papers publishing the results of studies paid for by the taxpayer; physicists circumventing the old-boy peer review process by publishing online or first passing their manuscripts through open-ended peer review online.  And, yes, there are open access journals (e.g., PLoS), though generally at high cost.

The system probably can't change too radically so long as science costs money and research money doesn't come along with salary as part of an academic job, as it probably should since research is required for the job!  Instead, the opposite is true: universities hunger for you to come do your science there largely because they expect you to bring in money (they live on the overhead)!  And humans are tribal animals so the fact that who you know is such an intrinsic part of the scientific establishment is not a surprise--but that aspect of the system can and should be changed.  The reasons that science has grown into the lumbering, conservative, money-driven, careerist megalith that it is can be debated, as can the degree to which it is delivering the goods, even if imperfectly.  But it is possible that we're beginning to see glimmers of hope for change.  The best science is at least sometimes unconventional, and there must be rewards for that as well.


Ben Green said...

Great, informative post. There are at least 2 systemic problems in science: (1) the "publish or perish" dictate and (2) the "get funding" dictate.

Have you ever scoured the stacks at a major University of scientific journals to see how much unread and unreadable crap has been published?

More so, the fiefdoms and cabals of NIH officials and their cronies really need to be rooted out. The control the $$, which controls people's jobs, which controls and reinforces, bad, safe science. Good job by young Nicholson.

Ken Weiss said...

Not just science research but social science, novels, music, poetry, painting, and other human endeavors. One can pick on one's favorite dustbins.

John Hawks, an anthropologist and blogger (see link to the right) was quoted to me recently as having quipped that the modal number of citations is zero!

It's easy to see how little most of our baubles are formally recognized, even given that much citation these days is pro forma and based on ref-searching (for bibliography padding) using Google or PubMed. And journals that pressure their authors to cite the journal to game the 'impact' factor.

Our work is cited more of then that, however, because we insist that our relatives and pets do it....

Zen Faulkes said...

I have some serious concerns with Nicholson's article, which I detail here:

"There are open access journals (e.g., PLoS), though generally at high cost."

Do you know that PLoS ONE waives publication fees if you ask nicely? Some discussion of that in the comment thread here:

Anne Buchanan said...

We agree that your concerns about Nicholson's Duesberg connections (which are even deeper than you note) are legitimate concerns, but we decided that they don't delegitimize his points about the culture of science so we decided to address those without addressing his personal motivation for writing the piece, or the who you know aspect. Indeed, as you point out in your own post, his points have been made before, something we also note -- anyone in science surely has thought about them -- but that doesn't mean they aren't worth discussing.

That PLoS ONE will waive publication fees if you ask nicely is a nice nod to equalizing the field, and given the state of things, not inconsiderable. But it's not the solution.

Ken Weiss said...

In part it's not the solution because too many will beg for freebie. Individual webpage posting of research, with some kind of clearing house notification system, will lead to too much snow (as in radar terms), probably. But we're moving that way---away from restrictive reviewers.

This won't help the grant story, though. Nor will anonymous proposals, though that might help at the margins.

Unseating power in an orderly way is always a challenge. It's easy to abuse the effort by accusing power of abuse. Privatizing science (restricting formally or de facto into a few elite places) should be replaced by having main resources central and free. But there is no real safeguard against a blizzard of chaff, when you get right down to it.

Still, the 'net is probably going to help, and blogs, online pubs, and the like are a step in a good direction, I think.

occamseraser said...

Sorry, guys, but you blew it this time around. The BioEssays "paper" you feature is puerile anti-establishment propaganda cloaked in naive nonsense.

Anne Buchanan said...

You didn't like our Big Scientist post, either, as I recall. Hm...

Anne Buchanan said...

“It’s this weird, fluid time where people are experimenting with new things to see what the possibilities are,” says Yale doctoral student experimenting with crowdfunding her research, and quoted in a NYT blog about young scientists embracing crowdfunding. Nice to see this challenge to the status quo from those who have the most to lose if the system doesn't change.