In his article The Vanishing Voter, Harvard professor Thomas Patterson makes a statement about modern political campaigns that made me a little nauseous:
Ambition, manipulation, and deception have become as prominent as issues of policy and leadership
You might scoff at my fragile stomach – claiming that politics has been like this for decades – but it is not politics and politicians that inspire queasiness, rather the sinking feeling that medical science might be heading in the same direction.
I’ve previously written about honesty in academia in Identifying good scientists and keeping them honest and do not think that many people need to be convinced that deception is unnervingly common in all walks of life including science, exemplified with high profile scientific fraud cases over the last decade.
An equally disturbing trend, however, is the “scientist turned politician” where manipulation and empire-building come into play and the scientific research gets relegated to the back burner. In some instances it seems that the research might simply be a means to an end, and not the good kind of end (cures, technologies, discoveries, etc), but rather the key components to building a successful career.
This is especially problematic when the purse strings are tightened at funding agencies and not all of the peer reviewed and “fundable” research is even close to getting funded. In such situations, grant funding becomes even more about salesmanship. In Selling science: the lure of the dark side, Matthew Bailes points out:
All scientists compete for funding, and the more compelling the evidence and story, the greater the chance of success.
I would not be foolish enough to argue that researchers have no need to communicate why their research is important and deserves funding – on the contrary, I think this is a critical skill that makes one’s scientific findings carry more impact. The difficult part is figuring out who is selling good science and who is just good at selling. It seems to me that sometimes the people who shake the right hands, sit on the right committees, and talk the right talk at the right time stand to gain much more than those that do the right experiment to challenge the validity of their claim.
Typically, the community relies on peer review (both grants and papers) to sort this out, but I fear that the lack of recognition for peer review contributions works against the scientific community. Again, this plays into the hands of the good politician: for over-worked and tired reviewers, clarity and simplicity can sometimes trump the confusing or difficult (despite the latter often being more realistic and relevant). I still think that people should be unafraid of publishing their name as the reviewer of a particular paper that gets published – this not only gives credit for reviewing, but also puts one’s reputation on the line by saying “this work satisfies me as good enough to see in print” – check out our previous entry on peer review.
When it comes to the big question of which young scientist to hire into a department to do world class research for the next few decades, university hiring committees do consider national and international networks, previous grant/fellowship abilities, pedigree (i.e.: who you’ve trained with), etc though many are inconclusive about one’s abilities in the lab or mentoring/training skills which are arguably two critical hiring metrics.
Perhaps this is why publications are still the killer metric and the one that students/postdocs often strive for – but should a Nature, Cell or Science be enough? If you go to the right labs and know the right people, publishing in these journals appears somehow easier – some would (correctly in some cases no doubt) say that getting into those labs is part of the process of becoming a good scientist. But that process itself is riddled with all sorts of qualitative assessments of “potential’, buoyed by strong political skills and previous networks. When does this process begin?
Like any empire, the strength comes from consolidating power. A former new assistant professor colleague of mine at a mid level university in Ontario once asked me – “How can I compete for an NSERC against three new hires in Toronto who don’t have to teach and have access to huge technological resources?” I still have no good answer aside from sighing that it seems that big science sometimes seems to be done without considering whether or not it is creative (or good?) science.
I’d like readers to ask themselves – what irks them about politicians? are scientists the same? more or less than a decade ago? – feel free to share your thoughts, I imagine the comparisons are plentiful and painful, but stand to be corrected.