Dan Sarewitz worries about creeping bias in science (emphasis added):
Alarming cracks are starting to penetrate deep into the scientific edifice. They threaten the status of science and its value to society. And they cannot be blamed on the usual suspects — inadequate funding, misconduct, political interference, an illiterate public. Their cause is bias, and the threat they pose goes to the heart of research…Nothing will corrode public trust more than a creeping awareness that scientists are unable to live up to the standards that they have set for themselves. Useful steps to deal with this threat may range from reducing the hype from universities and journals about specific projects, to strengthening collaborations between those involved in fundamental research and those who will put the results to use in the real world. There are no easy solutions. The first step is to face up to the problem — before the cracks undermine the very foundations of science.
As you all know, Dan Sarewitz is one of my intellectual heroes. And so it doubly pains me to note that I critiqued this sort of writing in my last post. What does it mean to “undermine the very foundations of science”? Does it mean funding will be cut? PhD enrollment will decrease? The public will stop supporting science? And what would that mean? Would decreased public support itself translate to less funding? How?
I think Dan is trying to say something along the lines of: “Bias in science is a big deal, we should be doing more to address it, and there’s a chance it could hurt our credibility.” While the rest of his essay admirably explains the first two points, the conclusion is a bit strained. As I’ve noted before, a robust body of evidence suggests that there is no penalty for hype and exaggerations. Simply because something is a problem does not mean there are consequences for avoiding it.
While asking presidential candidates to engage in a meaningful science policy debate, G. Pascal Zachary wonders:
Is there a way to discuss efficiency and outcomes in S&T without setting off a firestorm among researchers?
There’s a very easy answer to this question: Nope, not a chance!
I’ve been scolded in the past for noting that scientists are another special interest group who will always ask for more money. Though I admit I sometimes overdo this line of thinking, it is a useful framework that the S&T policy community need to embrace more strongly.
That said, Zachary’s essay is excellent and I largely (entirely?) agree with it.
David Bruggeman’s sharp comment is worth reprinting in full:
From where I sit, both Stilgoe and Macilwain are attempting to remind the community of two things.
First, the large opportunity they are missing to be opportunistic. If the changing political environment changes the emphasis in what funders are looking for, researchers (at least those who eventually get tenure) tend to exploit those trends. If you go back a decade, researchers adapted to the increased emphasis on security in part by trying to fit their work into the ‘new normal.’ That’s not happening now.
Science and technology advocates are appealing to the soft bigotry of low expectations: they always complain about funding, so that’s all science and technology policy is about. I work in science and technology policy, and funding is at most 5 percent of what I work on.
Secondly, science and technology advocates, frankly, are rubbish at doing anything to improve themselves or the research enterprise. There’s no questioning of the status quo, no conception of doing things differently than before. We could use a little creative destruction and the economic crises provide the possibility. Does the post World War II method of organizing, funding and performing federal research still make sense?
Of course, since the folks in the U.S. failed to properly manage a damn thing after the NIH doubling effort ended and the system couldn’t (or wouldn’t) adapt to a decline in the rate of growth for funding, I expect most will ignore the new reality of flat or declining funding (not rate of growth, absolute dollars) and pine for the good old days of excess building capacity and way-too-long periods of time as postdocs.
But hey, if we’re just an interest group, no problem. We’ll just do like everyone else and continue to think our ‘successes’ of the last decade validate our tactics and strategy. My mind still boggles at the persistent lack of imagination amongst those that were supposedly encouraged to conduct original research as part of their ‘training’ in science and technology.
There’s a lot to unpack here: scientists’ response to a changing environment, the content of S&T policy, improving the research enterprise, and the early 2000′s doubling of NIH funding. I’ll attack these points in turn.
I first question whether funders will change their priorities, and if they do, in what direction. Republicans have historically supported basic research at the expense of applied, a tradition the leading Republican candidate maintains. Obama consistently advocates for doubling basic research, Bush II also called for more science funding, and Clinton started the NIH-funding binge to begin with. It’s not at all clear that a “new normal” is upon us anytime soon.
Along those lines, I’m not sure the DOD-analogy applies. I’d love to see a more fine-grained analysis, but I get the impression scientists reoriented their priorities after funding became available. There was no period of introspection that led to scientists’ wanting to protect the nation. Rather, they saw some money and went after it. That’s why I suggested new funding streams would change scientists’ behavior more than anything else.
And since funding is the life-blood of scientific research, we should expect when S&T advocates to focus efforts there. They advocate on behalf of the research community, not science writ-large. People like Bruggeman and (to toot my own horn) me fill other necessary roles. We recognize science is more than research and policy is more than funding. Researchers have other concerns.
As for creative destruction, I suspect it rarely occurs with the consent of those being destroyed. I welcome David’s input on this as his knowledge of economic history is much greater than mine. But as I understand Schumpeter, external pressure and competition induces creative destruction. If the economic crisis won’t produce such pressure (and again, Presidential statements don’t support that view), then that pressure has to come from somewhere else.
This is getting long already, so I’ll close with a couple points. First, I largely agree with Bruggeman’s goals. I would love scientists to reexamine their priorities and question the status quo. But it’s not easy for them to do so. The neuroscientists I know are well aware of the funding dynamic Bruggeman describes. But they also know getting tenure means publishing papers and receiving grants. Successful grants tend to focus on narrow research questions and call for grad students and post-docs, perpetuating the the PhD bubble. Even if they wanted to change, they couldn’t do so without sacrificing their careers.
And that’s why I harp on interests so much. I’m not sure the policy community appreciates that scientists are simply acting in their interests. Us in S&T policy have to deal with this reality and propose practical solutions.
Those involved in science policy sometimes seem to me to be sleep-walking through the greatest crisis to afflict the West since the Second World War. True, from the point of view of the scientist at the bench, grants continue to flow and results continue to be published. Perhaps this is why wider discourse about science’s role in society has hardly budged an inch.
For the past three years, I have grown steadily more impatient with this ‘business as usual’ approach. Whenever an academy president or research chief stands up to speak in public, I have been waiting for them to explain how they will do things differently. They never do.
Macilwain doesn’t seem to understand that scientists are already dealing with a crisis. From their perspective, less science funding is the crisis to be dealt with. Why should scientists meekly accept they change their ways when everyone is trying to maintain business as usual? Scientists see a shrinking pie and want their portion to stay the same. It’s self-preservation, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Scientists genuinely believe more science funding serves the common good and addresses the economic crisis, just as the Chamber of Commerce genuinely believes the same about lower corporate taxes. Scientists do in fact care about basic research. Asking scientists not to lobby for what they care about is asking them to abdicate their democratic responsibilities. It’s not a fair request.
Going forward, a better approach may be to stop narrowly equating science with academic basic research (something I’m guilty of in this very post), and instead try to direct funding to different kinds of science. Academics will always study what the Macilwains and Stilgoes out there are not satisfied with. So rather than attacking this type of research, Macilwain et. al. should do their own political lobbying for the type of science they want. A world in crisis demands it.
Jack Stilgoe criticizes scientists for not doing more to address the economic crisis:
Much of the rhetoric of the scientific community has been about protecting its short-term health when public funding is under attack on all fronts. This was the correct tactic, but there has been little strategy… Now, surely, is the time to ask the science policy questions that are so important but rarely get asked – What science do we need and why? Who should benefit? Who should decide? – and leave open the possibility that the answers might call for a radical redesign of the scientific enterprise.
I think this attitude severely misreads the situation. Why should scientists sit quietly while their funding is being attacked? Are bankers strategizing, or are they calling for lower taxes and fewer regulations? How about teachers? Construction workers? The military? Opposing funding cuts is what interests groups do. That is their strategy.
The notion that science is a human institution created by real people, with all the flaws and biases of human institutions everywhere, is perhaps the central insight from science studies. So I’m always confused when STS scholars expect scientists to act differently than anyone else. It’s almost as if STS want their ideas to be wrong!
We are not surprised when unions and business groups fight for their members. We shouldn’t expect otherwise from the National Academies because they too are a special interest. If Stilgoe and I want to change scientists’ behavior, we’ll have to make it in their interest to do so.
As much as it annoys me, I can’t bring myself to complain too much about Marcelo Gleiser’s short essay:
This shaping of our worldview is not restricted to abstract ideas; quite the contrary. Much of the way we understand reality and live our lives comes from technological applications of scientific discoveries, driven by engineers and designers. The recent passing of Steve Jobs is an illustration of how cutting-edge science and innovative design can literally change the way we live and communicate with each other…
Under this view, science is more than a collection of explanations about the natural world: science is a means to freedom, offering people a way to control their destiny, to choose wisely in what to believe. As Galileo insisted at the dawn of modern science, “Think for yourself! Don’t take what people tell you at face value. To not bow blindly to dogma!” And mind you, Galileo was a religious man. Being pro-science does not necessarily makes you anti-religion. Paraphrasing Galileo, “if God gave us a mind to understand the world, He surely would be most pleased if we did so.”
I could nit-pick Gleiser’s flawed take on the relationship between science and technology or criticize the mindless hagiography. (What does “science is a means to freedom” even mean?)
But as I’ve said before, there’s much to respect here. Most physicists can’t be bothered with outreach, and so it’s unfair to complain just because Gleiser doesn’t meet my standards. I’m sure he has more interesting concerns than the economics of innovation and better things to do than engage in deep introspection. Gleiser has some vague notion that basic research leads to technology, viscerally feels more science will solve all, and is admirably taking the time to write about it. Yes it’s poorly researched, relies on emotion, and employs unclear language. But we all do that from time to time.
Those of who want a different narrative can get caught doing nothing but refuting Gleiser’s efforts. I actually hope we imitate him. We need STS writers as passionate and deeply felt as he is. We need writers who recognize there’s more to science than academia and more to academia than basic research. We need writers who know “the intersection of science and culture” involves much more than physicists, biologists and philosophers. For every Marcelo Gleiser, we need at least two Jonah Lehrers.
Expanding the conversation doesn’t happen by shutting down voices you disagree with. But it can happen by shouting over them.
In a recent exchange, Peter decries “overblown public assessments” of the benefits of science, and warns that “putting out hype that encourages unrealistic expectations is stupid and will eventually come back to bite the originator.” It’s a typical sentiment, and one that the science studies folks make often. You can find a recent iteration just after the State of the Union, when Matt Nisbet worries that Obama risks trust in “America’s most admired institution” by making science the center of his domestic policy.
This type of argument is quite common: If scientists don’t stop distorting the truth, then someday there will be a reckoning. The only problem is that there never has been and probably never will be any such reckoning. Scientists continue to insist that basic research is the source of applied research, that science is the center of decision-making, and that more science will solve all problems. Despite the possibility of impending doom over such claims, they (we!) appear willing to take the risk.
If we grant that overblown public assessments are intrinsically bad (and I’m not entirely convinced they’re that bad), those of us trying to change scientists’ behavior have to concede they face no consequences. It’s simply not very persuasive to argue that the very, very, very slight chance of backlash is reason enough for them to change. Suggesting otherwise is itself an overblown assessment and will rightly be ignored.
In the context of discussing the status of science in the federal budget, Matt Nisbet asks: “as a matter of social responsibility, do scientists have an obligation to accept that reductions in scientific spending are necessary to preserve social programs?”
Nisbet’s question relates to discussions we’ve previously had on this blog. As hopeless as it may sound, I think that we’re all wasting our time. I suspect that there are very few (if any) circumstances under which scientists will accept that less funding serves the common good. (Needless to say, I sometimes find myself engaged in these acts of futility.) And as I’ve indicated before, I’m not sure that scientists are necessarily wrong in their actions.
Any group that receives public dollars or favors must lobby. And lobbying, which inevitably brings with it distortions and exaggerations, can simply be a pejorative synonym for what some would call civic activism. In this vein, you may even argue that the continuous drumbeat for more money helps fulfill our social obligations. After all, some interpretations of politics insist that democracy works only when groups organize and fight for their interests. At least in the short run, more money serves scientists’ interests. It is a bit unreasonable to think we act otherwise.
I’m starting to believe that Nisbet and others (myself included!) take the wrong approach. Scientists will never, ever, ever support funding cuts, and will always resist attempts at greater oversight. In this regard we are are no different than teachers, police officers, or big oil. So rather than trying to change how scientists interact with the public, it might be more fruitful to change how the public thinks of scientists. As distasteful as I find it, perhaps the better approach is to try convince the public that on one level scientists are identical to teachers unions, police officer unions, and Exxon Mobil.
I think it’s perfectly understandable and reasonable for scientists to [exaggerate our benefits]. Every other special interest group does so. There’s nothing wrong with that of course. Some would even say that healthy democracy requires special interest groups.
In the back and forth that followed, Ryan criticized this attitude as blithely accepting an outcome with potentially harsh consequences. More money for genetic maps and global climate models may mean less for research on racial health disparities and adaptation. The mundane gets sacrificed for the sexy while the public continues to believe in utopian promises, a meme that the science studies folks have pretty much beaten to death.
All of this is of course true. Scientists do unreasonably favor basic research over short term need, and surely many important questions remain unanswered as a result. I should not have so readily acquiesced to the current, imperfect state of affairs. Lives are at stake after all. And so we must push against scientists’ false promises, and we must highlight the opportunity costs of basic research.
But in making such arguments, as the science studies community so often does, they themselves ironically neglect more mundane and less sexy ones. Yes it’s true that more biochemistry won’t necessarily lead to better health. But it’s also true that those making this claim forgo logic and evidence for anecdotes and sloppy reasoning. What most bothers me is not our ineptitude in solving cancer and global warming. It’s that the lobbying done in my name brings with it distortions and half-truths that contradict the very qualities I allegedly embody. How can we honestly advocate for better science education and data-driven decisions while also promoting the deranged belief that basic research is the source of technology?
Such carelessness is unbecoming of people who supposedly value reason and evidence. In the end, potential negative consequences shouldn’t be the only reason to resist scientists’ exaggerations. Protesting blatant hypocrisy is also a good reason. In my view it’s reason enough.
Over at Adapt Already Ryan Meyer highlights a recent Times article about the disappointing output from the Human Genome Project. In typical fashion scientists offered more than they could give. Instead of a medical revolution we got a few more Nature papers. Ryan asks at the end of his post:
The science policy question is this: are we, the public, ok with this pattern? In a democracy where the squeaky wheel seems to get the grease, does science have to make its living on empty promises? It’s a tough one to argue on either side.
As I started to say in the comments, I think the answers are pretty clear. Scientists have been exaggerating their work for forever and yet the public still adores us. Just consider the public attitudes surveys in the recent Science and Engineering Indicators. Results like this go back decades. As to whether scientists have to make unreasonable promises, I’d say that all special interests groups must do so. Scientists are no different.
It was quickly pointed out that this would be all well and good as long as everyone realized scientists were just another special interest group, not the case right now. So how to reconcile the discrepancy? It seems there are two ways. Either scientists stop exaggerating our promise, or the public stops viewing us as special. So I would recast Ryan’s questions as: would science still be funded as much as it is now under either of these hypothetical scenarios?
Although there’s no real way to know, I’d guess the answer would be no in both cases. Surely our false promises and an uncritical citizenry play some role in our robust funding. But given how much scientists depend on public funds, I’d bet we’d fight any change on either front. Just imagine the uproar if anyone pointed the similarities between science organizations and teachers unions.
In the end, we’re probably stuck with this imperfect situation. For what it’s worth, in my view it’s not as big of a deal as many–myself included!–sometimes make it out to be. Consider Ryan’s comment:
If no one recognizes that scientists are an interest group, but everyone’s fine with the current pattern of unfulfilled promises, is that ok? By analogy, what if we all thought that Wall Street firms were just selfless engines of economic growth, and that the main job of the SEC was to make sure the firms did as well as possible? That might make us more likely to accept their behavior, but it probably wouldn’t be a better situation. Institutions like the SEC are (supposed to be) managing these self-interested groups in order to protect the public.
Well, yes. We definitely do not want the SEC as the spokesperson for Wall Street. But it’s important to note that dishonesty at the SEC can lead to a global economic meltdown and the suffering of millions. Dishonesty at NSF leads to a few more random professors studying some random problem and publishing in some random journal that no one (including their colleagues) will read.
So the flawed science-society relationship is tolerated not because the public is particularly stupid or scientists particularly venal. It’s because on some level everyone knows we’re just not that important.