Science may be humankind’s greatest success as a species. Thanks to the scientific revolution that began in the 17th century, humans today enjoy instant communication, rapid transportation, a rich and diverse diet and effective prevention and treatment for once-fatal illnesses. Moreover, science is humanity’s best hope for addressing such existential threats as climate change, emerging pathogens, extra-terrestrial bolides and a burgeoning population.
However, the scientific enterprise is under threat from both external and internal forces. Now the scientific community must use its capacity for self-correction — based on new information, discoveries, experiences and ideas (the stuff of scientific progress for centuries) — to address these threats.
A major hindrance to scientific progress is the increasing scarcity of research funding — a trend that has been exacerbated by the global economic crisis. Uncertain funding prospects not only discourage scientists from pursuing risky or undirected lines of research that could lead to crucial discoveries; they also make it more difficult to recruit the best and brightest for scientific careers, especially given the extensive training and specialization that such careers require.
Furthermore, leaders from across the political spectrum are questioning scientifically-established principles — such as anthropogenic climate change, evolution and the benefits of vaccination — with no scientific basis. At best, such statements serve as a distraction from important issues; at worst, they distort public policy. Although such threats are outside of scientists’ direct control, improved communication with political leaders and the public could help to reduce misinformation and bolster confidence in science.
However, the field’s credibility is also being undermined from within, by the growing prevalence of scientific misconduct — reflected in a recent spate of retracted scientific publications — and an increasingly unbalanced scientific workforce that faces perverse incentives. Although the vast majority of scientists adhere to the highest standards of integrity, the corrosive effects of dishonest or irreproducible research on science’s credibility cannot be ignored.
The problems are rooted in the field’s incentive structure — a winner-takes-all system in which grants, prizes, and other rewards go to those who publish first.
While this competitive mentality is not new in science — the 17th-century mathematicians Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz spent more than a decade fighting bitterly for credit for the discovery of calculus — it has intensified to the point that it is impeding progress.
Indeed, scientists today are engaged in a hyper-competitive race for funding and prestigious publications that has disconnected their goals from those of the public that they serve.
Last year, for example, when C. Glenn Begley and Lee Ellis sought to reproduce 53 “landmark” preclinical cancer studies, they discovered that nearly 90 percent of the findings could not be reproduced. While the researchers who originally published those studies may have profited from increased funding and recognition, the patients who need new cancer treatments gained nothing.
Moreover, this winner-takes-all system fails to account for the fact that scientific work is largely carried out by research teams rather than individuals. As a result, the scientific workforce is beginning to resemble a pyramid scheme: unfair, inefficient and unsustainable.