Here's the huge problem threatening to damage the basic functions of science

GraduationFlickr / Jason BacheResearchers are incentivized to publish positive, surprising results as often as possible.

A sweeping report from Vox on the state of science has some alarming news.

“In the past several years,” write reporters Julia Belluz, Brad Plumer, and Brian Resnick, “many scientists have become afflicted with a serious case of doubt — doubt in the very institution of science.”

It’s an alarming claim, and all the more so because, they say, it’s the conclusion of conversations with 270 leading scientists.

Their thesis won’t be shocking to people who closely follow science as a profession: Researchers feel increasingly trapped in a vicious cycle of bad incentives emerging from the underlying economics of academia, and they think it’s hurting their work.

The problem, in essence, is this:

  • In order to progress along a typical academic career path and get their hands on grant money, scientists have to publish positive results as often as possible.
  • That leads them to avoid much of the hard, boring labour necessary to advance science as a discipline: tackling problems that might take years or decades without results to crack and re-running their own and each others’ studies to test if the results can be replicated.
  • Researchers are also incentivized to bias their work toward a positive, surprising result, which may contribute to a world where many published studies cannot be replicated or rely on weak evidence.
  • Peer-reviewers, the outside experts charged with evaluating results before they’re published, are ineffective, allowing bad or incoherent studies to slip through or punishing researchers they don’t like.
  • Paywalls keep the public and even other scientists from accessing most research directly. Many scientists report frustration with the publishing industry and pirate papers.
  • University PR people, journalists, and scientists themselves over-hype or misrepresent research, because news stories can help with grant funding.
  • Young scientists are overworked and underpaid — problems that disproportionately impact women.

Broadly, the story’s authors and the scientists they spoke with urge a broad shift in the incentives governing academia. There’s a lot to it, but it comes down to three points:

  • Money should flow, they suggest, toward researchers who test one another’s’ work and produce original work with lots of evidence — not just those with the most shocking results.
  • More money should be made available to improve the working conditions of scientists early in their careers, encouraging more people to enter the field.
  • The publishing industry should be aggressively reformed or abolished.

You can read the full report at Vox.

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