Why Modern Science is Facing Another Dark Age

What matters most: the betterment of the human race, or putting food on the table for your family?

It may seem like a strange question, but the answer will define the future of the sciences all around the world.

In a confronting research paper published in 2016, Marc A. Edwards – the distinguished professor who uncovered and subsequently ended the Flint water crisis – and Siddhartha Roy painted the picture of an industry corrupted. An industry obsessed with output over outcome; with the ‘whats’ instead of the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ that represent the very basis of scientific endeavours.

The climate has changed, they say. No longer does the old adage of “publish or perish” hold true. Today, scientists are focused on “funding or famine”, taking funding wherever they can get it in order to remain in a job.

Financial support is dissipating, ethical lines blurring, and job prospects dying up. Left unchecked, the greed of institutions and the desperation of scientists could result in a recession into the dark ages, where reason, knowledge, and validation are secondary concerns to the convenient ‘truth’.

Edwards and Roy, both environmental engineers at Virginia Tech, says that rather than emphasising qualitative criteria, universities are judging researchers based on four quantitative criteria:

  • How often their work is cited in industry journals,
  • How often the journal their research is published in is cited on an annual basis,
  • The total research dollars allocated to the researcher, and
  • The amount of patents they’ve acquired.

The findings are interpreted as a measure of the academic’s value, but as Goodhart’s Law states, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure”.

It comes as no surprise then that 71% of researchers believe their colleagues have found ways to manipulate such a broad system. Some are submitting findings to pay-to-publish Open Source journals. Others fabricate their results entirely. In addition, over 90% of college administration officers assumed their peers were submitting false data.

For those still researching by the rules, the need to ensure positive findings in order to receive continued funding is pillaging the very reason for their work: experimentation.

In an industry where peer-review and replication experiments are a crucial norm, null and contradictory findings are just as important as those that confirm a researcher’s hypothesis. So many of our greatest discoveries have come after repeated efforts to uncover them – many too have been unveiled by chance alone – and to forget that is to prevent the curiosity and innovation required for progress to be made.

The problem has become so severe that the impact is being seen in the classroom, with many students abandoning the field whilst in the midst of study. This is particularly noticeable in Women and Under-Represented Minority (WURM) students, who studies show often enter STEM studies with community-oriented rather than egotistical goals, only to realise such goals contradict the expectations placed upon them. Only 14% now go on to permanent positions in STEM fields five to six years after graduation. The findings are troubling, especially considering the role STEM will play in our evolving workforce over the next decade.

So what’s the solution? The industry needs to find a balance between quality and quantity. The former led to an ‘Old Boy’ mentality that proved exclusionary and often narrow-minded, while the latter has manifested as an extreme reaction, failing to prize the virtues that define a true scientist. Somewhere between them lies a point where output and experimentation can co-exist.

Such a point is the breeding ground of trust, responsibility, and community sorely lacking in the sciences today.

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