When it comes to science - its the economy stupid.16 Feb 2016
I read a lot of articles about what is going wrong with science:
- The reproducibility/replicability crisis
- Lack of jobs for PhDs
- The pressure on the families (or potential families) of scientists
- Hype around specific papers and a more general abundance of BS
- Consortia and their potential evils
- Peer review not working well
- Research parasites
- Not enough room for applications/public good
- Press releases that do evil
- Scientists don’t release enough data
These articles always point to the “incentives” in science and how they don’t align with how we’d like scientists to work. These discussions often frustrate me because they almost always boil down to asking scientists (especially and often junior scientists) to make some kind of change for public good without any guarantee that they are going to be ok. I’ve seen an acceleration/accumulation of people who are focusing on these issues, I think largely because it is now possible to make a very nice career by pointing out how other people are doing science wrong.
The issue I have is that the people who propose unilateral moves seem to care less that science is both (a) a calling and (b) a career for most people. I do science because I love it. I do science because I want to discover new things about the world. It is a direct extension of the wonder and excitement I had about the world when I was a little kid. But science is also a career for me. It matters if I get my next grant, if I get my next paper. Why? Because I want to be able to support myself and my family.
The issue with incentives is that talking about them costs nothing, but actually changing them is expensive. Right now our system, broadly defined, rewards (a) productivity - lots of papers, (b) cleverness - coming up with an idea first, and (c) measures of prestige - journal titles, job titles, etc. This is because there are tons of people going for a relatively small amount of grant money. More importantly, that money is decided on by processes that are both peer reviewed and political.
Suppose that you wanted to change those incentives to something else. Here is a small list of things I would like:
- People can have stable careers and live in a variety of places without massive two body problems
- Scientists shouldn’t have to move every couple of years 2-3 times right at the beginning of their career
- We should distribute our money among the largest number of scientists possible
- Incentivizing long term thinking
- Incentivizing objective peer review
- Incentivizing openness and sharing
- An incentive to publish only positive results so your ideas look good
- An incentive to be closed so people don’t discover flaws in your analysis
- An incentive to publish in specific “big name” journals that skews the results (again mostly in the positive direction)
- Pressure to publish quickly which leads to cutting corners
- Pressure to stay in a single area and make incremental changes so you know things will work.
- Working on a scientific problem and trained as a scientist
- Publishing all results immediately online as preprints/free code
- Responding to queries about their data/code
- Agreeing to peer review a number of papers per year
More importantly these grants should be given out for a very long term (20+ years) and not be tied to a specific institution. This would allow people to have flexible careers and to target bigger picture problems. We saw the benefits of people working on problems they weren’t originally funded to work on with research on the Zika virus.
These grants need to be awarded using a rigorous peer review system just like the NIH, HHMI, and other organizations use to ensure we are identifying scientists with potential early in their careers and letting them flourish. But they’d be given out in a different matter. I’m very confident in a peer review to detect the difference between psuedo-science and real science, or complete hype and realistic improvement. But I’m much less confident in the ability of peer review to accurately distinguish “important” from “not important” research. So I think we should consider seriously the lottery for these grants.
Each year all eligible scientists who meet some minimum entry requirements submit proposals for what they’d like to do scientifically. Each year those proposals are reviewed to make sure they meet the very minimum bar (are they scientific? do they have relevant training at all?). Among all the (very large) class of people who pass that bar we hold a lottery. We take the number of research dollars and divide it up to give the maximum number of these grants possible. These grants might be pretty small - just enough to fund the person’s salary and maybe one or two students/postdocs. To make this works for labs that required equipment there would have to be cooperative arrangements between multiple independent indviduals to fund/sustain equipment they needed. Renewal of these grants would happen as long as you were posting your code/data online, you were meeting peer review requirements, and responding to inquires about your work.
One thing we’d do to fund this model is eliminate/reduce large-scale projects and super well funded labs. Instead of having 30 postdocs in a well funded lab, you’d have some fraction of those people funded as independent investigators right from the get-go. If we wanted to run a massive large scale program that would be out of a very specific pot of money that would have to be saved up and spent, completely outside of the pot of money for investigator-initiated grants. That would reduce the hierarchy in the system, reduce pressure that leads to bad incentive, and give us the best chance to fund creative, long term thinking science.
Regardless of whether you like my proposal or not, I hope that people will start focusing on how to change the incentives, even when that means doing something big or potentially costly.