Of sausage factories and science

Scientists, like me, complain continuously about insufficient funding for research. We spend an ever larger chunk of our time writing applications to fund our science, lobbying politicians to increase budgets and defending scientific activities from cuts. Yet never in the history of humanity has so much resource been invested in science. This is because scientific research has an undeniable track record of delivering. Countries that nourish and protect their research and development efforts are consistently rewarded by better educated populaces, access to more sophisticated technologies and have healthier and wealthier societies. Only the most anarchic or destructive jurisdictions disrespect the benefits of education and rational science.

Yet the connection between scientific investment and better societies is not well understood. Oh, there are many explanations and many theories and just as many books detailing these. Typically, they take a retrospective view and trace a path between some discovery and a transformative benefit a decade or so later. There are many of these anecdotes and they make compelling reading. They usually fall into tropes such as lone genius, persistance in the face of adversity, sheer single-mindedness or a concerted, planned effort. They are rarely as straightforward as documented but we’ve become used to air brushing and “based upon a true story” for the sake of a good narrative. That is not to say that our scientific community is left to its own devices. I was once reprimanded by a wise political voice for suggesting much of what we do in science results in failure. I meant it in terms of the need to take risks and that the efforts of many high risk projects never see the light of day (and can therefore lead to their futile repetition). But he noted that it was foolish to argue for more funds from a politician by inferring there is so much futility in science.

And there is the rub. From its humble beginnings largely as the hobby of rich or privileged gentry, science has become an ordered, measured and regulated enterprise. This is unsurprising, given the large amounts of money now at stake (we know every penny spent by the military is subject to scrutiny in order to ensure toilet seat prices are kept below $10,000). But the vast machine we have created that produces our modern science is based on flimsy foundations. That is because of three huge problems:

  1. We don’t understand what really drives scientific discovery.
  2. We must produce results to demonstrate we are not wasting money.
  3. There’s an ever increasing gulf between science and society.

These also speak to the fundamental questions: how much science can we afford and how can we ensure the science that is done is effective? The answers derive from addressing the three problems above.

(1) We don’t understand what really drives scientific discovery.

First, let’s step back and examine what we do understand. Scientists (at least) have a solid grasp of the scientific process. It’s stood the test of time well, after all, and is broad in its application to many of our questions. If science cannot address an issue it’s usually because the problem is based on a belief or policy. Indeed, the cold, calculated, scientific approach is inappropriate to many aspects of human existance; but for answering questions about our observable universe and our many challenges, the scientific process is stunningly effective.

However, as mentioned in the preamble, we don’t have a good handle on how science is best performed. That is because discovery science tackles the unknown and that usually involves looking at the universe in a way other human beings haven’t. New findings emerge from people asking questions that didn’t occur to others, just as innovation requires new ways of solving problems. These types of discovery are inherently unpredictable. Occasionally, a cluster of breakthroughs are made in a particular place and, upon realizing this a few years later, we try to clone and replicate the environment (the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge in the 60’s is a good example). But we are rarely successful in that venture. This is because we fail to recognize that profound discoveries are actually rare and the environment from which they emerge is usually unstable. This is not to say there are not best practices in science, but, as I’ll return to, we often overlook the most important ingredients in favour of established behaviours.

There is such a thing as scientific proficiency. In the life sciences we tend to go through cycles of advancements, one leading to another. After the massive discovery phase of the chemistry of life and the descriptive phases of physiology, emphasis switched to understanding individual proteins and genes and genetics became a major driver of new knowledge. Then, with the advent of high-throughput technologies, genomics and proteomics allowed appreciation of systems and generated a profusion of new genes to study. Then gene editing allowed interrogation of multiple genes… and the cycles repeat. All good stuff, but is this a chaotic whirlwind or is there a pattern?

This inexorable advance of knowledge, powered by new technologies and approaches, has caused profound changes in how we conduct science. There’s no doubt that significant advances have and are being made, the question is whether the limited resources we have to conduct research are being applied most effectively. Put another way, are we investing too little or too much? How would we know?

(2) We must produce results to prove we are not wasting money.

To keep up with the volume of new knowledge but also to “upgrade” the skills of scientists, we’ve added layers and barriers to progression in the profession of science. In my learning years in the late 70’s/early 80s, I spent 9 years between starting a degree and finishing postdoctoral training. It was a long time. Today, the typical period is 70–100% longer — at least on the academic track. Trainees are in their mid to late 30’s before being, if fortunate, in a position to set up their own research labs. Moreover, an increasing fraction of those who make it to assistant professor fail to achieve tenure or promotion. What an incredible waste. How do we select who will survive? The currencies we count for these decisions are scientific publications and, in particular, which banks have issued it.

As the volume of published science has increased, the research community has looked for short-cuts to organize the literature, to gauge its significance and to avoid the hard work of actually reading the material itself when judging productivity. New metrics multiplied and became surrogates for quantifying the quality of something that resists quantitation — namely new understanding. In effect, the publishing industry was given the keys to progression in science while they made society pay (literally charging scientists to publish their work and then the public and scientists to read their own work that society had paid for in the first place). Researchers colluded and co-opted hierarchies of scientific journals — knowing full well that many of the most important, dogma challenging studies were often demoted to journals of lower prestige and that the attributes that some journals were looking for in a study were not necessarily condusive to the best science (retraction rates generally increase with impact factors). The current mess of scientific publishing in which we are now embroiled, including predatory publications, has been eloquently discussed and alternatives broached by many others (see DORA and Open Science initiatives) but less obvious is the impact this abrogation of scientific gate-keeping to third parties has had on how we advance science itself. Disincentives for risk-taking are enormous — for trainees and principal investigators alike. Proposing ideas that challenge the norm without extensive experimental evidence already in place dooms a grant application. Likewise, a technically gifted trainee may strike out on a project that doesn’t yield exciting results, irregardless of their skill in experimental design. Given the intense competition for new faculty positions, a CV that lacks at least a couple of “high impact” papers won’t make the shortlist. Increasingly, scientists have conformed to the rules, performing mainstream science as its safer, more predictable and appreciated by their judging peers. Afterall, isn’t there enough instability in science careers?

But the scientific process does not teach how the science it yields should be appreciated. It is a logical process, agnostic to what is to be done with its products. It does not prescribe how results should be disseminated or evaluated. Instead, there‘s increasing probability that the instruments we have developed for scientific adjudication and publication may be stifling the best ideas and the very people that truly advance understanding. How many capable young minds have become false-negatives on the long path to a scientific career because of bad luck or their not fitting the mould? How many false-positives have thrived by adhering to or playing the prescribed system?

(3) There’s an ever increasing gulf between science and society.

Perhaps the above issues could self-correct over time but another cloud is gathering. As science becomes more sophisticated and technologies more advanced, our own capacity to understand them is reduced to the point of blank acceptance and, associated to this, ignorance. Our appreciation of science and technology decreases as it blends into lives and becomes invisible, to be replaced by issues that are are personal concern that we can understand. When these issues become directed towards personal circumstance by popularist leaders, the sectors of society that underpin modern society — engineering, computational networks, science and technology start to look superfluous — even luxuries. Pile onto this jargon, endless acronyms, lengthy qualification and expensive equipment and soon these fields switch from being the fuel of societal advancement to barriers to personal empowerment.

In science, we’ve done a fairly lousy job of rectifying this view, preferring to quietly take the money and focus on our research without thinking too much of how we may look to the very people who support our lives. Ultimately, though, if the public does not see value in science, neither will governments. We’ve instead ridden on the coattails of history confident that the rewards of science are obvious to all. Perhaps we deserve an awakening. Our condescending attitude to those outside science will bite us. This is aggrevated by the treatment of much of science as a form of entertainment. Much of the science the public does see is couched in hyperbole and exaggeration. We know this. We see this. We contribute to this in the words we use. Is it any wonder the public is increasingly questioning their trust in science? That our credibility is falling? At a time when the forces of pseudoscience and fake news are rising, now is a poor time to realise we’ve been taking the rest of the world for granted.

So now is as good a time as any to take a hard look at what we do, to remove our perverse incentives, replace our rusty mechanisms, and overhaul our traditional but fossilized structures. The core quality of a scientific mind is to see the world with new eyes. To be at once both naive and knowing. One sure way to increase this is through maximizing diversity of the people in science. Homogeneity is an anathama to original thought. We must identify and remove biases against those with unconventional paths. We must protect those who think differently, instead of judging them by metrics that have little to do with creativity and instead reward the median. Science thrives on continual challenge — it dies if fed cookie cutter conformity. Scientific discovery leads to the invention of our future. It is time to first re-examine and then to re-invent how we conduct and measure science. Surely it is worth a bold experiment or two to test this?* The results may just provide compelling rationale to justify how much science we should be performing.

*I may have some ideas. :)

Note: stimulated by a chat over coffee with a friend with a far broader education than mine who pointed out that some of our brightest and most creative colleagues are often judged as misfits and trouble-makers who struggle to attract funding, yet are the very same people who see the world with the most different perspectives and are most likely to change that world.

Toronto researcher working on diabetes, stem cells, cancer & neuroscience. 140 chars are my own pithy but open access thought-lets.