The Changing Temptations Of Science

Stephen Turner published in 2020:

The idea of science as a spontaneous order produced by autonomous individuals following their best hunches, the core of the liberal theory of science, became less an accurate description than an expression of nostalgic regret. Research was supposed to be a free market that encouraged risk-taking and innovation. The grant and funding market encouraged competition, but the competition was increasingly for survival in a world where the big grants, which produced the most output, won. Science came to be seen as a system in which inputs needed to be matched by measurable outputs. An op-ed piece in the Washington Post, based on the 1991 Office of Technology Assessment report Federally Funded Research: Decisions for a Decade, asked “How Much is Enough?” Science had evolved a new ethic: an ethic of productivity.

Productivity now meant something different than it did under the ethic of discovery, where what mattered was knowledge and ideas. It meant producing measurable outputs: patents were counted along with citations, and grant numbers were counted as well. And in the face of competition, military and industrial funding became a way to keep university labs going, and a necessity. The change was underscored in 1984, when President Reagan selected Erich Bloch—an engineer, from the private sector, without a PhD—to be director of NSF. Bloch proceeded to create programs that encouraged multidisciplinary team science. The old model of a few “first class” people was a fading memory: the new model moved closer to corporate science. Bloch oversaw the funding of major engineering and science-and-technology research centers at universities, as well as a national supercomputer network. “Economic competitiveness” became the primary public justification for government funding of science.

By the late 1990s, science had become STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), and had an additional economic justification—as a preferred kind of job training. The promise that STEM education would lead to high-paying (high tech) jobs began to drive national education policies worldwide. Science became central to what was taken to be the technological future—and research training of a more ethnic- and gender-diverse student population was an investment in this future. But this politically powerful promise tied science to immediate considerations of impact and relevance. Congress (and presumably the public) wanted new jobs and economic growth, now.

* Temptations arise from the organizational realities of modern science, particularly the need to fund a lab. This need requires a relation with funders, involving some sort of alignment between the aims of the researcher and those of the funder. In the face of intense competition, the work of alignment falls on the recipient to a greater extent than it does the funder. And this means that autonomy is limited to what can be achieved within these relations.

Many temptations arise within these relations, or in connection with them: the temptation to claim impact, to overpromise, to overstate the policy relevance of findings, to sacrifice the pursuit of intellectually promising lines of work to those that can be funded, to produce work that is marketable to funders but scientifically trivial, to leave the tasks of voicing and substantiating skepticism to others, to neglect the tasks of intellectual integration and reflection that don’t have “impact,” and to do just enough to meet the demands and not dig deeper or in directions other than what the funding regime requires.

The upshot is this: the norms relevant to these temptations have not developed sufficiently for scientists to be able to insist that they are effectively governing themselves. In the new system, bias became rewarded. Findings that confirm what a sponsor wants confirmed lead to more funding. And if many people are trying to confirm a result, and the research is statistical, they are highly likely to find what they are looking for…

* Contemporary science is plagued with crowd-following, where researchers jump onto an approach or topic because that is a good strategy for getting funded. University research offices facilitate this, and metrics encourage it.

* Modesty about limits is difficult to accept when the fate of the biosphere, or breast cancer sufferers, or America’s economic supremacy, is said to be at stake. But the complexity of the relation between science and the public, as well as the funding system, presents a number of conflicting imperatives and interests. For example, in relation to politics, or the promise of profit, such claims as “the science is settled” and “there is a consensus” carry special importance. Yet the idea of consensus is not a traditional notion in science, and there is no long history to learn from. On one hand, such claims are a source of power—science speaking with one voice rather than many. Yet the pressure to maintain consensus may make scientists in the current peer-review regime reluctant to criticize other scientists or make controversies public, or to air the uncertainties that they privately acknowledge. Dissenters may be penalized by rejection of their grants and papers, and blocked promotions.

* If the structures of support for science—in the private sector, in public private university partnerships, and in the regulatory science realm—provide incentives that overwhelm the traditional social controls of science, the only backstop is the system of social controls beyond science, through the marketplace, investigative journalism, the canon of legal and patent law, or the regulatory apparatus pertaining to securities law and fraud.

Not surprisingly, then, social controls from outside science are beginning to kick in. The Theranos scandal, involving a start-up company pitching a supposedly revolutionary blood-testing technology, was uncovered not by the scientific community, or even the Food and Drug Administration, but by the investment community and a crusading business journalist. The relationships between a leading Harvard chemist and Chinese research institutions was not uncovered by Harvard but by the FBI. The poor quality of preclinical cancer science was not exposed through peer review but by testing done in pharmaceutical corporations. “Compliance” with institutions outside science begins to replace internal constraint.

* The new regime of quantitative accountability invites cheating, crowd-following, conformity, lapses in quality, and subservience to sponsors whose funds make it possible to compete.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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