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Default Why Science is broken (and how to fix it)

An interesting post from a blog that BioNMR does not aggregate:

Why Science is broken (and how to fix it)
By Morgan Giddings
1 September 2011

Bell Labs was a remarkable enterprise which, according to Wikipedia, contributed to the development of cell phones, wlan (wifi), semiconductors, compression algorithms, and many more developments that changed the way people interact with technology.

Bell Labs worked well because they brought together innovative thinkers, and let them innovate. People there didn’t have to write grant proposals, teach students, serve on committees, or work on translational research that would supposedly yield immediate “marketability”.

WLAN/wifi technology for example was first developed in 1990, yet was not widely adopted in the market for another 15 years; a “translation” time of more than a decade.

Universities were also the source of many innovations, because at their best, they also let scientists go into the lab to innovate. here were teaching duties and the occasional grant proposal that had to be written, but it wasn’t the constant treadmill of publishing, writing grants, and translation into immediate relevancy.

In a frequent scenario, university researchers would come up with some brilliant new idea and play with it for years, eventually spinning it out into a company if it continued to be promising.

But now, it seems like the whole endeavor has lost sight of the fact that all innovation and science takes time.

The current mantra in university-based biomedical research is “translation.” While translation of science into the clinic is a laudable goal, the question is, are universities and university faculty really equipped for that task?

I argue that on the whole they are just about the most poorly equipped of any entity to do this. Here’s why:

Bureaucracy. Every university I’ve encountered has piles upon piles of bureaucratic red tape, which gets worse as time goes on. This inhibits all the stuff that one needs to move rapidly in an area like translation. That includes being nimble about personnel management, budget management, and technology coordination.

Mixed missions. Universities require their faculty to play an ever larger array of roles, disallowing focus on their core strengths as innovators. Faculty must be fundraisers, promoters, managers, teachers, paper pushers, committee participants, and on top of all of that, come up with innovations that can be immediately applied.

Science by committee. The fate of grants are determined by committees. Committee-based logic is generally anathema to innovation. Innovations are always considered dangerous and risky until they become mainstream–then they are no longer innovations.

The NIH and NSF try to allow more innovation into grants, but there are ever more “coordinated” projects being funded by these agencies, where on top of the individual research is layered various committees and reviews that decide which science is good and which isn’t.

When was the last time a Nobel Prize was awarded for science planned and executed by a committee? Committees are rarely innovative. They are reactive. They are a good way of implementing checks and balances, but to try to force them to lead the way in innovation is ludicrous.

The history of computer languages makes this clear: while there have been various attempts to define languages by committee, nearly all have failed. Nikalus Wirth, creator of the PASCAL language walked out on the design committee for its predecessor Algol because it had become far too complicated.

I see the same thing happening in the “big science” projects I’ve been involved with. Ever more complexity gets added by each committee discussion, slowing down innovation and burdening faculty with ever more committee work (on top of their many other roles).

This is not the way to make science work effectively. I suspect that if it continues in this direction, eventually the whole endeavor will just collapse from its own weight. I don’t see that as a good thing.

The whole system has gone berserk, and needs to get back to basics. The basics are simple: good people doing great innovative research, and then letting companies or institutes step in to do the translational part. Specifically:

Funding must change from a short-period, project-by-project basis to one where we fund good scientists to go innovate, without having to justify to a committee exactly how their innovation may play out. It is extraordinarily rare that anyone can correctly predict how any particular innovation will impact the world, and having committees attempt to perform this function is ludicrous*. As I teach people: “nobody has a crystal ball, but they like you to pretend convincingly that you do.” The charade must stop if science is to truly progress beyond minor incremental advances.

Faculty must be allowed to focus on their core strength, which is doing innovative science, as well as teaching others how to do it. All other functions should be done by others who are trained in those things. Universities need to realize that they are shooting themselves in the foot by forcing faculty to be administrators, fund raisers, promoters, managers, and paper pushers.

We need to understand the focus on short-term translation for the fallacy that it is, and stop asking grant applicants to focus on this. Science is almost never translational in the short term. Only once ideas are of sufficient maturity that they are no longer innovative is it time to translate them into beneficial applications.

Scientists need to get a whole lot better at communicating the value of science to the world, and in the process, communicating to people that good science takes time and money, but it is a worthwhile investment that has myriad payoffs.

Science needs to start being fun again. Science should enrich and inspire people, especially younger generations. An example is space travel. For decades it inspired legions of young scientists, yet now it seems like an ever more remote pipe dream (unless you’re a multimillionare who can buy yourself a short ride into space). While focusing on fixing disease is laudable, isn’t it just as important to give younger generations something to look forward to, aside from just increasingly complex and expensive cures to diseases?

People ask me all the time why I gave up a tenured faculty job at a major research university, as if I were insane. Given what is going on in science, am I really all that insane? The system is broken, and needs fixing. I’ve figured out that it is very difficult to fix it from the inside, because then I’d be beholden to the very same organizations that require deep criticism (universities and funders). Perhaps I’ll have better luck on the outside.

And, a last note: if you still believe that science can be fun, then I hope you’ll stick with it. I know that there’s a lot of angst, and that things seem bleak. But at some point it will have to get better, and those that do stick with it will be the scientific leaders of the future


Source: Why Science is broken (and how to fix it) | Naturally Selected


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