Science editor-in-chief sounds alarm over falling public trust

Jeremy Berg warns scientists are straying into policy commentator roles

August 18, 2016
Snake oil salesman
Source: Getty
Ballyhoo and bombast: ‘scientists say ‘we have this important discovery and it will lead to new drugs for treating cancer in a few years’, when that reality is a long way off

Jeremy Berg is taking on one of the most influential jobs in science just as the scientific endeavour is facing a challenge of historic proportions.   

As the new editor-in-chief of Science, a highly selective journal that still has the controversial power to make scientific careers, the biochemist and former University of Pittsburgh senior manager is worried about an apparent rejection of science by some parts of the public – and thinks that academics should look closely at how their own behaviour may have contributed.  

“One of the things that drew me to this position…is there’s a crisis in public trust in science,” he tells Times Higher Education after starting in the Science post on 1 July. “I don’t pretend to have answers to that question but it is something that I care deeply about.”

Berg, who started his career in chemistry but then moved on to span a host of other disciplines including biochemistry and personalised medicine, acknowledges that society’s confidence in science does “wax and wane” over time but thinks that, this time, things are different.

In the US, “scientists have been labelled as another special interest group”, he says.

Part of this is down to the polarisation of American politics and the rise of an anti-intellectual spirit, Berg thinks. His fears echo Atul Gawande, an American health writer, who earlier this year told graduating students at the California Institute of Technology that “we are experiencing a significant decline in trust in scientific authorities”.

In his address, Gawande cited a study that showed a significant decline in trust in science among American conservatives. In 1974, conservatives had the most trust in science, but by 2010, they had the least, and substantially less than liberals in particular.

Donald Trump, who has erroneously linked vaccines to autism, blamed China for creating the concept of global warming to undermine US manufacturing and claimed that environmentally friendly light bulbs can cause cancer, can be seen as one manifestation of this long-term collapse in conservative trust in science in the US.

But researchers are not entirely blameless for this rising hostility, thinks Berg. “Scientists are guilty of behaving in some ways of making this stick more than it needs to,” he says.

Too often they have gone beyond explaining the scientific situation and ventured into policy prescriptions, notably in the case of climate change, he thinks. “The policy issues should be informed by science, but they are separate questions,” he says. “Scientists to some degree, intentionally or otherwise, have been mashing the two together,” he adds, and urges scientists to be more “transparent” about “where the firmness of your conclusions end”.

Another area where scientists have overstepped the reach of their evidence is in drug development, where there “has been a tendency maybe to overhype early results", Berg suggests.

“Scientists…say 'we have this really important discovery and it will lead to new drugs for treating cancer in the next few years', when the reality is that they have swum the first lap of a sixteen-lap race,” he warns.

Berg’s interest in the communication of science comes in part from his time leading the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the basic research arm of the US’ National Institute of Health (NIH), where he was director from 2003 to 2011.

There he found that the NIH’s policies towards researchers, although well thought through, were “pretty close” to being “opaque” and in need of better elucidation, he says.

But some in the scientific community argue that high-profile journals such as Science are partly to blame for the very overhyping of results that Berg decries.

A paper published in 2011 made waves after it found that there was a correlation between journal impact factors (JIFs) – which measure average paper citation rates over the past two years and are highest for prestigious journals such as Science, Nature and Cell – and the rate of retractions. Science had the second highest rate of retractions among the journals studied, below only the New England Journal of Medicine.

This could be because these journals are more highly scrutinised, the authors said. But it could also be because of demands from such journals for “clear and definitive” results, they suggested, which incentivise researchers to cut corners to come up with a neat scientific story.

Berg acknowledges that there is a “delicate balance” to strike between sharing the exciting fruits of research with the public and being sure not to exaggerate findings.

He argues that Science has “by and large” got this balance right, although he admits that “there have been things that garner lots of publicity that turn out to be overblown or just plain wrong".

Although only six weeks into his job, Berg has already taken aim at JIFs, an oft-criticised way to rank journals and gauge the quality of scientists’ work. In a Science editorial and blog, Berg calculated that because papers have such a big spread of citations within any one journal, it makes little sense to use the JIF to predict how many citations any one article will have.

JIFs have been “abused by the scientific community and the scientific administrative community”, he tells THE, and have taken on “a life of their own”. Some journals specify their impact factors to three decimal places – this level of specious detail should be “like fingernails on a chalkboard” to a scientist, he says.

Berg stops short of saying that Science will no longer release its JIF, as “transparency is good". But actively publicising an impact factor is “a much harder case to make”, he says.

Science and others have also been under fire for their high rejection rates: the Nobel prizewinning cell biologist Randy Schekman accused prestigious journals of behaving “like fashion designers who create limited-edition handbags or suits” because “they know scarcity stokes demand, so they artificially restrict the number of papers they accept”.

Science Advances, an online only, open access journal launched in 2014, is a way to ease this problem, Berg argues, as it can accommodate articles too long to fit into Science itself.

It is “certainly the goal” for Science Advances to be as prestigious as Science itself, he says. “I don’t see it as the consolation prize if you don’t get in to Science.”

But even if the clout of Science Advances grows, Berg acknowledges that there may always be a “prestige edge” for physical journals – such as Science – where space is inevitably scarce.

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