Attempts to regulate researchers and make them “accountable” through targets and measurement of their impact on the wider world may actually have reduced trust in scholarly expertise, Europe’s scientific academies have warned.
A discussion paper published by All European Academies (Allea), based on input from leading thinkers on trust from across the Continent, postulates that “regulation, accountability and the growth of a managerial culture” has “altered the role of research and scientists in recent decades”.
“Much of modern science...is measured by impact and notions such as fostering innovation, which are not bad in and of themselves but when put in a regulatory and accountability framework tend to lead to narrow and at times perverse incentives,” according to Loss of trust? Loss of trustworthiness? Truth and expertise today.
The use of readily measurable targets to track academics is supposed to make them more accountable to the public – but in practice they mean accountability to regulators and government ministers, it suggests; the public realises this, and trusts researchers less, not more, as a result. Science needs a new “moral economy” that enhances trust, the report argues.
Robert Lepenies, an expert on behaviour and public policy at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig, said that empirical studies showed no evidence of a “cataclysmic downfall in public trust in expertise”.
Scientists and experts as a group still “enjoy higher levels of trust than other groups”, he said. What had changed, he argued, was that particularly in the US and UK the “open denigration of experts” was now acceptable in political debate.
More studies were needed to know for sure, he said, “but a narrow...view of what accountability means is making science much worse”.
The “tyranny of metrics” had come to determine research decisions, he said, as young academics in particular “have to fit a system of metrics, rather than following their curiosity”.
But he said that he was “all for” a wider type of accountability, where academics talk to the public and “get into fights on Twitter” about scientific topics.
Boris Grozdanoff, an associate professor at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences who specialises in the philosophy of science and has participated in the Allea discussions, said that the issue in many countries – including Bulgaria – was that academics were “too dependent on political connections, ideological views, even corruption”.
Some governments had sought to justify unpopular decisions by cloaking them in scientific expertise, he warned. “If society is unhappy with a government decision…they can wave the report of a scientific panel and say this is what science thinks,” he said.