The Sound Of Settled Science


Via Judith Curry;

We heard back from 270 scientists all over the world, including graduate students, senior professors, laboratory heads, and Fields Medalists. They told us that, in a variety of ways, their careers are being hijacked by perverse incentives. The result is bad science.

The scientific process, in its ideal form, is elegant: Ask a question, set up an objective test, and get an answer. Repeat.

But nowadays, our respondents told us, the process is riddled with conflict. Scientists say they're forced to prioritize self-preservation over pursuing the best questions and uncovering meaningful truths.

Today, scientists' success often isn't measured by the quality of their questions or the rigor of their methods. It's instead measured by how much grant money they win, the number of studies they publish, and how they spin their findings to appeal to the public.


Big surprise! Some of those coming clean on this must be horrified by their colleagues purporting the myth of the renaissance of science with the new Trudeau oversee.

I saw much of that while I was a grad student, going back to when I started in the late 1970s.

The sole task of academic research is money-harvesting. It's critical for institutional revenue and it's essential for getting hired and, ultimately, gaining tenure.

The research that is done is in those areas where there's lots of funding, no matter how trivial, pointless, or ridiculous it is. Good or important ideas that don't bring in much money are ignored and pursuing them has a habit of damaging one's career.

The result is that there's little originality. Along with that, only those projects which have a high probability of success are ever undertaken.

If one wants to look at those good or important ideas, it's best to arrange for one's own private funding and the terms under which it is received and spent. However, in exchange, the prominence of one's reputation may suffer, though if one is doing research on one's own, it doesn't matter.

The system suffers from being intellectually root-bound, hampered by conformity to the status quo and a lack of personal fortitude. Nobody wants to rock the boat lest they jeopardize their place at the academic hog trough.

It certainly isn't the system I was led to believe it was when I was an undergrad.

Oh, and don't think one can use one's own money, either, not unless one is willing to surrender control over it. The department wants its cut, sort of like a fee one has to pay in order to play the game.

Besides, having one's own money and the freedom to use it as one wants to means one can be independent, which is something the system will discourage and even punish.

All the while the myth endures that Harper stifled science and the new Liberal Renaissance is about to yield unparalleled advances. Thanks for the insider. Not that I didn't figure as much. Very sad nonetheless. I wish you great success!

The love of money is the foundation for all kinds of evil.
-- Sha'ul Paulos to his student Timotheos (I Timothy 6)

None of this comes as a surprise to anyone who has worked in academia or followed the GlobalWarmingClimateChange debate.

My comments are based on my observations while I was a grad student, particularly while I was working on my Ph. D.

I've been semi-retired for nearly 15 years but I have some money of my own. I don't need much for my research as all I need is a computer and enough cash to run and maintain it. Being independent like that gives me the freedom to investigate what interests me and work on what I like without worrying about anyone else meddling in it.

As for a Liberal renaissance, I'll believe it when I see it, considering the backgrounds of the Shiny Pony as well as Kirsty Duncan.

Agree 100%. I was strongly urged to join the academic side of things, but after a year of watching professors spend half their time worrying about maintaining current grants, and the other half worrying about landing new grants, I elected to get back into industry.

That's why I made my follow-up comment about one's own money. If one has some and actually uses it, it messes up the system.

I long thought that it would be have been nice I had become a professor, but nobody was interested. Part of it was my age, as I was in my mid-40s when I finally finished. Another reason was because what I was interested in investigating wasn't overflowing with funding. A third reason was that I committed the unpardonable sin of not studying all the way through, spending several years in industry between my first graduate degree and the next one.

When I saw what went on, I thought it was my imagination or, perhaps, my fault. Then I started reading articles of why some post-docs got out of the academic system and I also found websites on which people made their observations, many of which were similar to mine.

Now that I'm on my own, I'm rather glad that I was never part of that system after I finished my Ph. D.

I was in academia when I was much younger as a grad student and a researcher. As an idealist I believed I could advance science and contribute to human knowledge. After about 5 years I realized that academia was not the place to do that and became self-employed. I never regretted the decision.

I can guess what would happen to Albert if he requested funds for studying the possible curvature of space-time but left out the part that it could have a major impact on global warming. Funding denied.

But then didn't he self-fund in the sense that he worked as a patent clerk while developing his theories?

Einstein worked as a patent clerk for the same reason why many with doctorates take jobs like that. He couldn't find a job that was suitable for him and which made use of his eduction.

As it turned out, his duties weren't particularly mind-taxing and it allowed him to work on his research. During his time there, he wrote his paper on relativity and, thereby, established his reputation.

Medicine is equally afflicted. I had this very discussion with a fellowship trainee just last week. He's genuinely interested in research, but his department insists he get a PhD as a condition for employment with them. Never mind the quality of research let alone clinical competence, just get the letters after your name, then we'll look at hiring you. Academics are a blight.

I had a great admiration for my professors when I was an undergrad. Much of that was the image that my alma mater portrayed about them, aided by how they were portrayed in movies and literature.

Shortly after I stared grad studies, I ended up as grad student rep in department meetings, a job that none of my colleagues wanted. That image was shattered and my respect for professors dropped. I saw a lot of in-fighting and professorial jealousies and there were times when I thought that fistfights were going to break out.

I thought it was just that department, which, as it turned out, was run by an inept and weak chairman. Over the years, I was associated with three other university departments and what I saw back then was, sadly, typical.

How anything ever gets done in a university department remains a mystery. Most of the professors I knew while I was a grad student were looking out only for themselves, and themselves only--few grad students were included in that. Many worked the "come late, leave early" shift, particularly those with tenure. Lots of them openly hated their colleagues and were frequently plotting against them.

I don't miss it.

It's no different in engineering. In order to become a professor nowadays, one must study all the way through, preferably with no breaks. Actual experience in the field, or having worked in a design office or on a shop floor can and will be used as grounds for rejecting one's application.

For some reason, having a Ph. D. trumps actual hands-on experience. Maybe actually working for a living practicing one's profession is regarded as "vocational", something to be despised and disparaged.

Even having a Ph. D. isn't enough to garner respect from academics. It seems that if one isn't a professor, one's doctorate is seen as tainted and of lesser quality, particularly if one is in the private sector. Those same academics might not be so harsh if one did research in a government lab.

or it could be that Alert found that even if he could find work that was suitable for him and made use of his education, he would still have an ego problem, the egos of other people. Intelligent people tend to intimidate those who are less intelligent. When a person with less education out performs those with education, the resulting "show" can be hilarious, trust me on that:-)))

Speaking out against this so called Climate Change could cost someone their career and soon they'll set up their own inquisition to try anyone who dares to speak out against their sacred religion of Enviromentalism

Possibly. That's hardly anything new, though. Sir Isaac Newton and Sir Robert Hooke didn't particularly like each other and Hooke often criticized Newton's research methods.

It happens even when a group of scientists and engineers are working together on something important. Apparently, the Manhattan Project wasn't exempt. Oppenheimer and Groves had their hands full in managing those people which, one might say, was more like herding cats.

One story I heard was that while the objective was to develop a working fission bomb, Edward Teller thought it beneath him and wanted to work on something even "better", which eventually became the fusion (i. e., hydrogen) bomb. It wasn't surprising that a lot of people didn't like him.

On the other hand, the development of radar wasn't nearly as bad. In a "Nova" documentary about it, which was broadcast in 1988 ("Echoes of War"--worth looking up if one can find a copy), one of the men who worked on it was interviewed. Due to his expertise by virtue of education and experience, he said he sometimes gave orders to generals and could do so because he knew more about the subject than they did.

I have worked in the chemical industry for 30+ years after graduating with a doctorate. Over the years, I have learned that the PROFIT MAKING Industrials still use the scientific method (SM) correctly. That's to say - a customer has a need for a chemical additive to prevent corrosion or scale in their process and current chemicals are not performing well. We will make a new chemical product - and based on laboratory evaluations select the best composition and test it at on location. If successful, we have a new account and make money! If the product does not work, we go back to the lab and continue to make a better molecule AND develop a test method to simulate the plant process more effectively.

Essentially, we use the SM for profit and to grow our business and in turn create high paying jobs - which is what capitalism is all about!

It just occurred to me that the "Nova" documentary might have aired in 1989. It doesn't matter--it was well-done, back when PBS was still worth watching.

I like your emphasis on making a profit.

I worked for a number of industrial R & D firms over the years. Making a quick buck was their only concern and the scientific method was non-existent. It took too much time for them to do things right in exchange for a profit, let alone a larger one, later on.

Oh, there were people who made money. The upper management made money. Those who held the majority stakes in those firms made money. The boss's darlings made money. (Those were often sycophantic know-nothings who charmed their superiors into believing they were experts and could, therefore, do whatever they pleased without being held accountable. Every outfit had one.)

The only people who didn't make much money were the lower level technical workers, many of whom actually had expertise and experience and knew what they were talking about.

All of those companies lived off government R & D contracts, thereby risking little of their own capital, if they had any. Doing that, however, killed any incentive to improve. After all, if the money kept coming in based on what those outfits currently had for facilities and procedures, why bother changing things?

It was hardly surprising to me that almost all of them were always close to bankruptcy. One that didn't could always get another bailout from the provincial government because the founder just happened to be good buddies with key civil servants.

That became possible because they all knew each other from early on. They grew up together, went to the same schools, dated the same girls--you get the picture. Whenever the company was skint, the founder could simply call one of his buddies and it didn't take long before there was more money.

When you mentioned government contracts - that does make a difference; however, the pubically-owned company (NYSE)I have worked for over 30 years, does not have government contracts. Our customers are the major global companies and if our chemicals do not work as advertised, then we either correct the problem or lose the contract. Yes, senior management makes big bucks; however, that is tied to how their segment of the company is meeting the yearly goals.

However, on the technical side - excluding marketing, sales, and senior management - the scientific method must be done correctly. New chemistries are evaluated against the "State of the Art" products and must out-perform them in order to proceed. Integrity on the research side is essential. If you lose that, then the company will go out of business.

One of the reasons I became disenchanted with the industrial R & D that I was involved with was that it was of the "shoot from the hip and hope to hit something" variety. It was done almost instinctively with very little logical thinking beforehand--just slap something together and hope it works.

If it worked, it meant that either the company could continue on the contract, having met its milestone objective, or that it would likely get follow-on funding.

Of course, that all depended on the government agency that awarded the funding. In one case, the principal investigator, who himself was a civil servant, lost interest in the project and directed his attention to something else. The work that was done on it was halted and, as far as I know, all the material associated with it is sitting in some dark corner, gathering dust.

The taxpayer, on the other hand, footed the bill.

How anything ever gets done in a university department remains a mystery. Most of the professors I knew while I was a grad student were looking out only for themselves, and themselves only--few grad students were included in that. Many worked the "come late, leave early" shift, particularly those with tenure. Lots of them openly hated their colleagues and were frequently plotting against them.

My experience as well. Most of the actual work was done by grad students and 'lab rats'. The professors and senior researchers spent most of their time sitting at desks playing on their computers, talking on the phone, going to meetings, or socializing. That's called "networking" in academia speak. Most of their time was spent looking for more funding to pay for their positions, or denigrating and undermining their colleagues. Seldom, if ever, were they in the lab actually doing any work. They would put their names at the front of the list of authors and then flog the papers through the "I'll scratch your back - you scratch mine" journal & peer review process. I got out because I like doing honest work and taking pride in my accomplishments, and academia was a dishonest scam.

I blame the tenure system for much of this. From what I understand, there's a lot of toadying when one starts as one has to make a good impression on those who will decide if one may be allowed to enter the pantheon of the academic gods.

I get the impression that it's a game of "many are called, few are chosen". But once one is granted tenure, in lots of ways it become a license to loaf, hence the policy of many who come late and leave early. However, keeping it is sometimes tricky as one has to contend with a different set of internal politics.

As for those who don't receive tenure, some try again, but they seem to be viewed as second-rate if they eventually succeed. After all, if they were any good, they would have made it the first time.

Those who fail after trying again often end up in the academic equivalent of the junior leagues.

I noticed the latter while I was teaching at a certain technical college. There was someone who had an axe to grind against me from the very beginning and he wasn't at all pleased that I was made permanent. He spent many years in trying to have me fired, particularly after he was promoted to assistant department head.

Two movies accurately portray what researchers are really like: "The Andromeda Strain" (the one with Arthur Hill and Kate Reid, not the rubbish that was on A & E several years ago) and "Contact" (with Jodie Foster).

In TAS, one sees how researchers can often squabble with each other, sometimes go on wild goose chases with nothing to show for their efforts, or become tired and make mistakes.

One reason I liked "Contact" was how it showed that there's a lot of back-stabbing and double-dealing and how researchers often elbow each other aside in order to move to the head of the line. I also liked the independence of Jodie Foster's character and how she stubbornly stuck with her project, despite efforts to scuttle it, though it helped that she had the support of a mysterious and eccentric benefactor.

"The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present, and is gravely to be regarded." Dwight Eisenhower, Presidential Farewell Address (Jan. 17, 1961).

Getting tenure is like becoming an upper level bureaucrat in the public service. They're set for life unless they do something extremely heinous.

I suspect that has a lot to do with the degradation of academia and our education system as a whole. To get the equivalent of the BSci I earned 50 years ago, one now needs a Masters or PhD. My senior year final project would be a Masters or Phd thesis these days. ...and that's in the engineering, technical and scientific fields.
What passes for a degree in LibArts is a joke.

“The difference between science and the fuzzy subjects is that science requires reasoning while those other subjects merely require scholarship.” -- Robert Heinlein

That's NSERC to a T. NSERC is the Canadian granting agency for science and engineering.

Oh yes and be sure to neglecg undergraduate students as much as possible (though NSERC wants names and data for undergraduates used in research). They are termed "HQP" - Highly Qualified Personnel. I have thought that NSERC in fact acts unconstitutionally, but few are prepared to question a source of MONEY!!

Getting government money is often like applying for a bank loan: first one has to prove one doesn't need it in the first place.

I remember looking at what one had to do to get NSERC funding. One needed to be a trained circus animal to jump through all the hoops.

On the whole, it was quicker and easier to go to work for a while and earn the money I needed. Whatever that was left over after paying my taxes and living expenses was all mine--no paperwork, no bureaucracy, no hassle.

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