Government policy is wrecking science

Tim Birkhead warns of the ‘end of science’ unless academics push back against threats to creativity and integrity

March 24, 2016
Neil Webb illustration (24 March 2016)
Source: Neil Webb

Ernst Haeckel, the great 19th-century developmental biologist and author of immensely popular science books, suggested that science had done its business and that there was little more to be discovered. A century later, the science journalist John Horgan published a book, The End of Science, making a similar point. Both men based their theses on the idea that knowledge was finite and that we’d soon know everything worth knowing.

Time, of course, has proved them wrong – and Horgan, in particular, probably wrote his book only to be provocative. But it seems to me and many of my colleagues that we are now approaching an end to science. This is not because we have run out of things to discover, but, as elegantly articulated in a recent article by Cambridge biologist Peter Lawrence in Current Topics in Developmental Biology, our creativity and even our integrity is being suffocated by the modern bureaucracy and politics of research and teaching.

Here’s a tiny but telling example of what we are now faced with. At the end of a recent seminar I presented on scientific misconduct, I asked the audience whether they knew anyone who had fabricated data for their final-year undergraduate project. Eighty per cent said yes. My jaw dropped and the expression on my face must have shocked the students since one of them came up to me and, touching my arm, said: “Tim, don’t be upset, we wouldn’t do this if it was real science.” This attempted reassurance only plunged me further into despair. I probed a little deeper and asked the students why they felt it was acceptable to fabricate data in a teaching context, but not in a “genuine” scientific investigation?

I was surprised at their openness about what I, at least, considered a delicate issue. After some time, we homed in on the answer. They had in effect been trained to fabricate data. At school, the pressure on them to perform experiments that yielded the expected results had been immense. Often, because of faulty or inadequate equipment, they failed. Lack of time to repeat the experiment (or to discuss why it had failed) meant that teachers openly and routinely opted to disregard “incorrect” results and make up the “right answer”.

If their teachers felt pressured into dishonesty to meet the required targets, so did the students when they got to university. Naively, I had always thought I would be able to tell when an undergraduate had made up data for a project, but now I am not so sure. The more I thought about it, the more I realised we live in a world in which far too many bankers, politicians and scientists are happy to “play the game” to achieve a particular end. And this disrespect for science by scientists themselves might well signal the collapse of the entire enterprise. Worse still, the competition and league tables imposed on scientists across the world by politicians and bureaucrats encourages both students and their teachers to connive in the awarding of marks far higher than are deserved. How many times have I heard colleagues bemoaning the fact that a PhD student arriving with a first-class degree doesn’t have the creativity to think their way out of a paper bag?

All is not lost quite yet. Lawrence’s article, “The last 50 years: mismeasurement and mismanagement are impeding scientific research”, urges the UK’s leaders to take a fresh look and ask themselves why, for example, the country has won so few Nobel prizes in the past few decades compared with previously. They ought to be deeply concerned by the money wasted on the “safe science” that many researchers feel obliged to pursue in order to secure funding. They should be ashamed, too, of the utter stupidity of asking for impact statements for research yet to be carried out. As Lawrence says, “research is investigating the unknown”. The current system is a farce.

Our academic predicament reminds me of the cod fishery in eastern Canada where I worked (on seabirds) in the 1980s. Fishermen had known as early as the 1970s that cod stocks were in deep trouble; they told the government, but the government ignored them and fishing continued apace. By 1992, the fishery had collapsed.

Twenty-five years on, it still hasn’t recovered and its loss has exacted an immense economic and human cost. Had politicians acted sooner – when the fisherman told them the cod were in trouble – there would have been a swift recovery.

The study of climate change has followed a similar pattern: the evidence – in the form of storms, floods, wrecked homes and, of course, climate data – has been overwhelming for decades, but are governments even now doing anything that matches the magnitude of the problem?

Our future depends on education and academic creativity. We cannot afford to stand by and passively witness the end of science. We need to be proactive in publicising its enormous benefits – and the even greater benefits that would accrue from a sensible but sweeping makeover of the system.

Tim Birkhead is professor of behaviour and evolution at the University of Sheffield.


Print headline: Politicians must wake up to avoid the collapse of science

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Reader's comments (4)

The editors of THE mistitled this article: it doesn't blame government, it blames teachers. It should also draw attention to the censure of unfashionable free speech, and the promotion of fashionable superficial consensus, on campuses, as constraints on creativity and integrity
Totally agree, politically charged headline. Though important to point out that scientists themselves have to take the blame, not simply for the compliance to which Tim alludes, but also for their contribution to and complicity in Research Council policy, which has allowed the impact agenda to bear down. The 'game playing' is going on at all levels, from the teachers and pupils through to those in the HE and research hierarchy dancing to the tune being played by government. We (scientists) have allowed the corruption of the Haldane Principle, to pander to political pressure.
One needs to look to the entire academic enterprise, particularly the publishing in "scholarly" journals and sense what university faculty have done to themselves. Fabrication of data is just a subset of the entire publish/perish/promotion/tenure/impact factors that are proliferating intellectual persiflage, aided by fellow colleagues in the same Sisyphean "game" and like Jack Horner, holding out the plum on the thumb.
This article is rather short, there is so much to say on the issue. I agree, the government and previous governments have lacked imagination for a long time and they only care about useful and practical solutions today, research takes time and the government is not willing to invest in projects that are not going to deliver in the near future.