Has modern science become dysfunctional?

Mar 27, 2012

The recent explosion in the number of retractions in scientific journals is just the tip of the iceberg and a symptom of a greater dysfunction that has been evolving the world of biomedical research say the editors-in-chief of two prominent journals in a presentation before a committee of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) today.

"Incentives have evolved over the decades to encourage some behaviors that are detrimental to good science," says Ferric Fang, editor-in-chief of the journal Infection and Immunity, a publication of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), who is speaking today at the meeting of the Committee of Science, Technology, and Law of the NAS along with Arturo Casadevall, editor-in -chief of mBio, the ASM's online, open-access journal.

In the past decade the number of notices for has increased more than 10-fold while the number of journals articles published has only increased by 44%. While retractions still represent a very small percentage of the total, the increase is still disturbing because it undermines society's confidence in scientific results and on public policy decisions that are based on those results, says Casadevall. Some of the retractions are due to simple error but many are a result of misconduct including of data and plagiarism.

More concerning, say the editors, is that this trend may be a symptom of a growing dysfunction in the biomedical sciences, one that needs to be addressed soon. At the heart of the problem is an economic incentive system fueling a hypercompetitive environment that is fostering poor scientific practices, including frank misconduct.

The root of the problem is a lack of sufficient resources to sustain the current enterprise. Too many researchers are competing for too little funding, creating a survival-of-the-fittest, winner-take-all environment where researchers increasingly feel pressure to publish, especially in high-prestige journals.

"The surest ticket to getting a grant or job is getting published in a high profile journal," says Fang. "This is an unhealthy belief that can lead a scientist to engage in sensationalism and sometimes even dishonest behavior to salvage their career."

Funding is just one aspect of a very complex problem Casadevall and Fang see growing in the . In a series of editorials in the journal Infection and Immunity they describe their views in detail, arguing that science is not as healthy as it could be or as it needs to be to effectively address the challenges facing humanity in the 21st century.

"Incentives in the current system place scientists under tremendous stress, discourage cooperation, encourage poor scientific practices and deter new talent from entering the field," they write. "It is time for a discussion of how the scientific enterprise can be reformed to become more effective and robust."

The answers, they write, must come not only from within the scientific community but from society as a whole that has helped create the current incentive structure that is fostering the dysfunction. In the editorials they outline a series of recommended reforms including methodological, cultural and structural changes.

"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 both large and small that one makes through contact with other scientists," they write. "Only science can provide solutions to many of the most urgent needs of contemporary society. A conversation on how to reform science should begin now."

Explore further: Education Dept awards $75M in innovation grants

More information: Copies of the Infection and Immunity editorials can be found online at iai.asm.org/content/80/3/891.full and iai.asm.org/content/80/3/897.full

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Duude
2.1 / 5 (16) Mar 27, 2012
I've been saying this for years. The current system has moral hazard written all over it. A reckless government will rain down grant money all over "science" that supports their political ambitions. That means money is constantly wasted not only on weak scientific theories but on cronies that fund political campaigns. This is not only wasteful and corrupt but it ruins the reputation of scientists pursuing sound science. It makes much more sense to limit the extent of government grants and loans while depending more upon private funding which has historically been more astute in analyzing scientific advances.
ryggesogn2
2.9 / 5 (18) Mar 27, 2012
"The root of the problem is a lack of sufficient resources to sustain the current enterprise. Too many researchers are competing for too little funding, creating a survival-of-the-fittest, winner-take-all environment where researchers increasingly feel pressure to publish, especially in high-prestige journals."
Maybe the problem is a system that demands publish or perish?
Maybe more 'researchers' should be rewarded for teaching.
TS1
4.3 / 5 (4) Mar 27, 2012
A question about this...

"The surest ticket to getting a grant or job is getting published in a high profile journal," says Fang. "This is an unhealthy belief that can lead a scientist to engage in sensationalism and sometimes even dishonest behavior to salvage their career."


The question I wanted to ask is, how dependent are scientists on grant money? I thought that most of them worked for large companies or government departments and thus did not need grant money.
thermodynamics
5 / 5 (11) Mar 27, 2012
TS1: You said: "I thought that most of them worked for large companies or government departments and thus did not need grant money."

Most "advanced" research takes place in Academia. Companies are focused on short term gains and government agencies have the reset button pressed every 4 years. If companies focus too much on long term, they miss market opportunities. Government is bounced around every 4 years as the political view changes. That leaves the academic world to have specialists who spend their lives working on the long-range questions (those questions I find most interesting). There are exceptions, but this is the general state of research.
TS1
5 / 5 (2) Mar 27, 2012
Thanks thermodynamics
Callippo
2.1 / 5 (13) Mar 27, 2012
I've been saying this for years.
And I collected as many bans and downvotes for it, as the single person can get... Anyway, this topic is not entirely new even in context of semi-official sources. It's indeed not a problem of biomedical sciences only - the evolution of formal physics and astronomy is just too slow-paced for to manifest its decline in more apparent way.
AWaB
1.7 / 5 (6) Mar 27, 2012
Teaching outside of the lab is a waste of time for researchers. Coddling your students just makes them soft and useless. The best way is the sink or swim method and utilizing the class ahead of you and helping the class below you. Forcing professors to spend more time teaching is extremely unproductive. Tenure is there so the professors can do the research and also publish findings that their superiors may not like or agree with. This article makes it sound like funding is drying up for bio research. Maybe there's a decrease in demand for a reason.
kochevnik
2.3 / 5 (8) Mar 27, 2012
creating a survival-of-the-fittest, winner-take-all environment where researchers increasingly feel pressure to publish, especially in high-prestige journals."...Maybe more 'researchers' should be rewarded for teaching.
So you're agreeing that competition is creating prestigious papers? Then why would you want to water that down with teaching? I've had profs who were basically teachers as they didn't publish, and they sucked at that as well.
Lurker2358
1.4 / 5 (7) Mar 27, 2012
AWaB:

My experience at LSU was that most of the Math and science and foreign language professors SUCKED as teachers.

I had only two or three half-decent to "good" teachers the entire time I was there: Two of them were English and Argumentative Writing professors, and the other was the Calculus professor from the Summer make-up class which I aced, having had to drop the regular class because the damn professor was worthless and had a 60% drop/fail rate.

In general, the professors were a bunch of jackasses that didn't want to be there, and spent as little time and effort "teaching" as physically possible. I'd say that at least 9 out of the 10 worst teachers or instructors I've ever had of any sort of educational environment were at LSU. I should have sued the university for what happened to me regarding scheduling anyway, but I didn't think of it at the time, and I doubt I would have won anyway.

I will never recommend LSU or any university to anyone. They are a waste of money.
Vendicar_Decarian
0.4 / 5 (41) Mar 27, 2012
That is a problem, but not nearly as big as the problem of Corporations funding corruption of science for marketing purposes.

More regulation to prevent this corrupt funding is needed.

"Maybe the problem is a system that demands publish or perish?" - RyggTard
Lurker2358
2.3 / 5 (9) Mar 27, 2012
jackasses would write tests with abstract math or science problems more complicated than general relativity for you to solve with 1 to 6 questions on a test.

the stupid thing is, employers want people to have a 4 year university degree, but the universities don't teach a single damn thing that is relevant to job skills!

I tested out of all of the basic stuff and like half of my curriculum, and from all the math and science classes, and other classes on the curriculum, did not learn a single thing that has ever been relevant to any potential job or job interview.

I learned more about computers on my own or from a 4 week training program when I did phone tech support than I did in several years at LSU, because LSU was 5 to 10 years behind...10 years ago.

Unfortunately, I never did go into more CS actively, because there's always more to it than just "do the computers work". There's always some corrupt sales pitch or some other unethical crap involved that I don't want any part of
Jeddy_Mctedder
2.3 / 5 (10) Mar 27, 2012
There remains only one real problem for science that cannot be worked out by self policing...... Religious anti scientific fundamentalism almost always rooted in institutional religious beauracrats taking advantage of the masses of sheep like human beings. A god fearing scientist is on who has come to terms with the challenges of faith. The sheep are the people who demonstrate The failings of Blind faith and it Is a huge threat to science

That is all.
Lurker2358
1.6 / 5 (8) Mar 27, 2012
One of the most important things I notice is university focuses on all the wrong things regarding students.

If they fixed the priorities regarding education and teach a student what they need to know, and ONLY what they need to know for the field(s) they want to go on, then it would be much better, and both the students and professors would win.

What they did to people in my generation was fill up the curriculum with a bunch of shit worthless courses that did nothing but provide an excuse for them to charge us more money.

Then I regularly catch math and science errors from some of the people on here and a few other sites, who are supposedly masters and phd level scientists. How did they get that? I mean, were they bribing or screwing their professor or something?
kochevnik
4.1 / 5 (10) Mar 27, 2012
What is "A god fearing scientist?" Some kind of Einstein/Jerry Falwell chimera?
Callippo
1 / 5 (4) Mar 27, 2012
Jeddy_Mctedder
1.2 / 5 (6) Mar 27, 2012
There remains only one real problem for science that cannot be worked out by self policing...... Religious anti scientific fundamentalism almost always rooted in institutional religious beauracrats taking advantage of the masses of sheep like human beings. A god fearing scientist is on who has come to terms with the challenges of faith. The sheep are the people who demonstrate The failings of Blind faith and it Is a huge threat to science

That is all.
Lurker2358
3.4 / 5 (9) Mar 27, 2012
You know, I don't care if you people give me negative feedback, because that was my experience and it's the truth, and it's relevant to the topic because the professors only care about their own research, not teaching, which means the students get screwed over.
Vendicar_Decarian
0.5 / 5 (42) Mar 27, 2012
I agree with Lurker. Education should be explicitly and entirely for the benefit of business. Science should be a slave to corporate interests just as workers are.

"employers want people to have a 4 year university degree, but the universities don't teach a single damn thing that is relevant to job skills!" - Lurker
GDM
5 / 5 (2) Mar 27, 2012
I'm with you lurker. I think the real problem is that the education "industry" in the US and elsewhere, is based on a model that is hundreds of years old, and is now woefully out-of-date. My hope is that employers will find a way to hire people with the knowledge and skills they desire, without having to rely on the piece of paper you get after paying a small fortune. Take a look at the Khan Academy (free!) and the "open courseware" from MIT (also free). In the world of the internet, getting a solid education is easier than ever, and that will empower greater entrepreneurialship.
StarGazer2011
2.8 / 5 (6) Mar 27, 2012
People seem to be missing the point, you dont get better quality by encouraging profs to teach more, they are separate things.
The article is talking about how the career incentives for researchers lead to sensationalised and exaggerated conclusions designed to appeal to the prejudices of grants committees. Also their career progression is dictated by quantity of articles published rather than quality, and citation count which can lead to small totally connected networks of researchers gaming the system by citing each others nonsense.
The problem is endemic, and no clear solution is apparent, at least to me.
RitchieGuy
2.6 / 5 (7) Mar 27, 2012
In my college days at Columbia after my military obligation, I knew some Profs who taught in the day time and moonlighted in the evening to make ends meet financially. Some did research work for the University and some tended bar or waited tables part time. I could understand their predicament and I used to wonder how they found the time to grade papers and decide what to assign for home or classwork while also researching their own expertise. Most were adept at multi-tasking and could juggle 2 or 3 projects at one time. I was never really able to do that and had to give my all to each one of my classes before even thinking about the next.
I think it's important for a teacher to BE a teacher, and a researcher to BE a researcher. It's almost impossible to be good at both on a daily basis since one role or the other is bound to suffer. I like my science straight up, honest and accurate. . .and without misspelt words. Aything else is a waste of time.
phlipper
Mar 27, 2012
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Vendicar_Decarian
0.6 / 5 (40) Mar 28, 2012
Very true, there has been no fraud found in Climate Science. Although seemingly infinite fraud from the denialists.

"Conspicuous in its absence, AGW fraud and funding." - Philpper
antialias_physorg
4.4 / 5 (7) Mar 28, 2012
jackasses would write tests with abstract math or science problems more complicated than general relativity for you to solve with 1 to 6 questions on a test.

Then you didn't get what these sorts of thests are aboiut. They are deliberately designed that way so that you have to give your utmost (AND show you that, even though you may have passed the test, there is still a lot left to be learned by doing your own studies on the subject)

University (or college) tests aren't school test. School tests are 'potty experiences' where you show your teacher you've been a 'good boy' by regurgitating what they fed you. University tests are there to kick you in the butt, show you your limits (i.e. areas where you should delve deeper) and get you going on your own.

After all: Life in the sciences is not about repeating what others have done. It's about study and research and self-motivated discovery.
antialias_physorg
4.4 / 5 (5) Mar 28, 2012
As for professors: yes, there are those that are not really adpet at teaching. But the sine qua non of teaching is: you have to understand the subject - and to a level that is at the forefront of current science.
The number of people who have that knowledge is severely limited, so I guess if we want to have the subject taught at all to the point where the students will be of any use to the scientific world then we'll just have to make do with the teachers we have.
(and if you don't like the teaching style of the prof then that's a perfect excuse to go researching on your own or together with other students. It's also a nice way to NOT spend all your time in lectures)

Professors are also, mostly, out of the hands-on research phase. They're more into the supervision of PhD students/post-docs who do the actual research and making sure enough grant money is available. That alone is (more than) a full time job.
Sigh
5 / 5 (8) Mar 28, 2012
A reckless government will rain down grant money

I am not familiar with the US system, but in Europe I have never experienced a government raining down grant money.

all over "science" that supports their political ambitions.

Government may decide how much money to assign to different fields, but scientists sit on the committees that decide exactly which projects get funded. And they try to predict the quality of the proposed research partly by the project description, partly by the previous performance of the researcher. That's where publications come in.

private funding which has historically been more astute in analyzing scientific advances.

In the UK, the Wellcome Trust funds more biomedical research than the government, but as far as I know, it uses the same procedure and the same people to decide what to fund. Why would you expect the Trust to do better? Or are you only thinking about business funding R&D with recognisable commercial value?
Lurker2358
3.2 / 5 (5) Apr 01, 2012
Anyway, yes, Modern Science itself, not just university, has become dysfunctional, particularly in regards to things like patent systems.

Under the existing paradigm, a university researcher gets public funding from state and federal grants, and discovers some new interaction or technology or material, and then they patent it and make a shit load of money off it, or sell the manufacturing rights to some company who makes a shit load of money off the product, and the general public who actually provided the original funds to the governments gets screwed, since the "company" owns the rights almost indefinitely, at least in the U.S. system.

And what about medicine? 3 years ago they found the "cure" for MRSA, I think it was a low dose of Lysine or one of the other "L" proteins combined with an ultra-low dose Amoxicillin killed 99% of MRSA, and they posted it on this very site, but it HAS NOT BEEN MANUFACTURED AND DISTRIBUTED YET! I haven't even heard of clinicals going on!!
Lurker2358
3 / 5 (4) Apr 01, 2012
So yeah, the medical scientific community is absolutely screwed up, both in top-down and bottom-up fashion.

People who regularly visit this site know there have been at least 2 or 3 other LEGIT cures for MRSA discovered in the past few years, and no evidence that any of them are being employed anywhere. It's like they WANT people to get sick and die and such.

HIPPA? I think it needs to be revised. There should be at the least a digital recording of everything that happens in hospital or clinic, with 3 copies for everyone's safety, one for patient, one for hospital, and one for the staff under lock and key to protect their practice and integrity of everyone involved.

Under existing HIPPA regulations, patients can sue doctors and hospitals over trivial shit, and there's almost no way they can defend themselves.

I think law should be modified so that it will be the rights and responsibility of medical community to publicly report certain STDs for the general public safety.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Apr 01, 2012
It's like they WANT people to get sick and die and such.

That's the pharmaceutical companies.
Yes: having people rely on a medication that keeps the symptoms of a chronic illness in check is much more profitable than finding a treatment for the illness.

That's not really the problem of the SCIENTIFIC community, however. As you say: they can find cures - so all is well on that front.
What the companies who paid for that research do with it is another matter.

If we want to have cures we need non-profit pharmaceutical companies (yeah...like that is ever going to happen)

And the patent issue is also not a scientific issue. That one is solely on the footsteps of big business/politics.

Making science responsible for these problems is a bit hypocritical.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (4) Apr 01, 2012
If we want to have cures we need non-profit pharmaceutical companies

How will that support a cure?

"Drugmakers, while acknowledging that quality-control issues contribute to supply interruptions, point the finger back at the FDA. The agency is responsible for overseeing drug manufacturing safety and quality, but it lacks adequate funding to hire reviewers to look at companies applications for new manufacturing facilities and processes or to send inspectors to existing plants in a timely way. Its bureaucracy adds to delays in approvals for new facilities or manufacturing processes, which can run a year long; meanwhile, lags in new drug approvals also continue, leaving the drug supply in jeopardy."
"
Others cite the governments tight price controls on generic drugs particularly those paid for with Medicare and Medicaid"

Read more: http://healthland...qnbJ1BCF
How many want the govt to manufacture your drugs?
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (4) Apr 01, 2012
"The Obama Administration also instructed the FDA to report any violations of the governments price controls on generics, which some critics believe will serve only to inflame the problem rather than resolve it."
"Of the 178 drugs that the FDA reported in short supply in 2010, the majority were generics, meaning they dont have patent protection and arent as profitable for the companies that make them."
"
The problem was, the retail price reimbursed by Medicare lagged behind current market prices by about six months"
"That pushed some physicians to switch to offering their patients brand-name drugs, at higher prices.

The net effect? Fewer orders for generic drugs, which further shrank the market and lowered incentives for generic-drug makers"

Read more: http://healthland...qncYKqML

"
Price controls only lead to shortages, not solutions.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (4) Apr 01, 2012
"In the U.K., for example, generic drugs often cost more than brand-name medications because the government health system is the primary purchaser of pharmaceuticals, and their negotiated price for brand drugs are far lower than they are in the U.S.

That also leads to the siphoning of generic drugs from the U.S. supply, which may also contribute to the shortfalls. Because the profit margin is higher for generic drugs in Europe and outside the U.S., its rare to see a shortage in these drugs anywhere but here, says Kantarjian.

Read more: http://healthland...qndPmQx2
"
Look at that. Socialist medical plans understand the profit motive to keep up the supply of drugs.
StarGazer2011
2 / 5 (4) Apr 01, 2012
ryggesoqn2: you are missing the point, the problem isnt the FDA refusing approval, its the pharma's not putting the drugs up in the first place.
Its all too obvious that a compound which treats a chronic condition is far more profitable than one which cures it, this is a pre-Obama problem.
I have not idea what you think generics have to do with new treatments, as generics companies, almost by definition, dont research new drugs and generics by definition arent new drugs, they are off patent compounds.
The only thing which can allow the market to work is ending patents entirely. Then anyone can make any compound they want. Given that most inventions are corporate property now days anyway there is little effect on incentivisation. But perhaps we could legislate that only the actual human inventors of a patent can own the patent, that it is non-transferable, and that it expires with their death. That might sort things out.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (4) Apr 01, 2012
its the pharma's not putting the drugs up in the first place.

"Putting the drugs up".
What does that mean?

"The spiraling cost of drug development in tune with stringent regulations, coupled with the low return on investment, often tends to discourage pharmaceutical innovators from developing products for extremely small patient populations. "
"But many disincentives are involved, which include career disincentives, lack of funding, and the multiple areas of expertise that are required"
http://www.ncbi.n...2996062/
There are many factors contributing to the issue. Not the least being professional development. What PhD wants to spend an entire career on research that has little chance of success?