The Perils Facing Modern Scientists

At a time when human flourishing — if not survival — hinges on scientific progress, the pursuit of academic research has never been more challenging. British physicist Peter Higgs, the Nobel Prize winner best known as the namesake of the Higgs boson subatomic particle, wrote a piece in The Guardian some years back observing that in today’s academic climate, breakthrough work like his own couldn’t happen “because of the expectations on academics to collaborate and keep churning out papers”.

“It’s difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964.”

Speaking to the Guardian en route to Stockholm to receive the 2013 Nobel prize for science, Higgs, 84, said he would almost certainly have been sacked had he not been nominated for the Nobel in 1980.

Edinburgh University’s authorities then took the view, he later learned, that he “might get a Nobel prize – and if he doesn’t we can always get rid of him”.

Higgs said he became “an embarrassment to the department when they did research assessment exercises”. A message would go around the department saying: “Please give a list of your recent publications.” Higgs said: “I would send back a statement: ‘None.’ ”

By the time he retired in 1996, he was uncomfortable with the new academic culture. “After I retired it was quite a long time before I went back to my department. I thought I was well out of it. It wasn’t my way of doing things any more. Today I wouldn’t get an academic job. It’s as simple as that. I don’t think I would be regarded as productive enough.”

Unfortunately, Higgs’ account is not an isolated one: as ScienceAlert reported, there have been several studies and polls done confirming the crushing difficulties faced by today’s researchers:

A new survey of young researchers by Nature suggests that things have only gotten worse since Higgs’ comments, with researchers today under even more pressure with less resources, and less job stability.

“In September, Nature put a post on Facebook asking scientists who were starting their first independent position to tell us about the challenges that they faced,” writes Kendall Powell for Nature in a special issue on the plight of young scientists. “What followed was a major outpouring of grief.”

Within a week, the journal had almost 300 responses from scientists around the world.

“I see many colleagues divorcing, getting burnt out, moving out of science, and I am so tired now,” one anonymous Belgium researcher admitted.

“It’s stressful when you don’t have money, and stressful when you do have money, because then you have to deliver,” said another, materials scientist Eddie López-Honorato. “It’s my fault if anything goes wrong.”

Given the circumstances, it is little wonder that those surveyed by Nature admitted to spending less than half their tine actually doing research; instead they must do various administrative or teaching duties that are required securing a university job.

Then there’s the so-called “publish or perish” system, in which researchers must periodically produce eye-catching studies in order to secure a shrinking pool of grants and jobs. The pressure to continually churn out research has left behind talented researchers who can’t keep up with the requirements, yet nonetheless have some promising ideas. Indeed, Higgs himself pointed out that with a mere ten published papers in a career spanning decades, he would’ve been among those deprived of funding and job security. Just imagine how many more groundbreaking discoveries and innovations have been preempted by such an unreasonable demand?

Moreover, the desperation to get funding and employment has lead to numerous flawed and shoddy studies, many of which fail to be properly scrutinized because no one has the time to verify or reproduce the research (the so called “reproducibility crisis”). Peer review an integral aspect of the scientific method, and the inability of modern researchers to both conduct and assess studies bodes ill for scientific achievement, to say nothing of the subsequent public and political mistrust of academia that has already been burgeoning.

Given the circumstances, it is unsurprising that, according to one study, if science remains in its current state — subject to perverse institutional, economic, and political externalities on all sides — it will devolve into a shell of itself. Referring to the results of a computer model that simulated the competition for funding:

“Over time, effort decreased to its minimum value, and the rate of false discoveries skyrocketed,” lead researcher Paul Smaldino explains in The Conversation.

And what’s more, the model suggests that the ‘bad’ (if you will) scientists who take shortcuts in relation to the incentives on offer will end up passing on their methods to the next generation of scientists who work in their lab, creating in effect an evolutionary conundrum that the study authors call “the natural selection of bad science”.

“As long as the incentives are in place that reward publishing novel, surprising results, often and in high-visibility journals above other, more nuanced aspects of science, shoddy practices that maximise one’s ability to do so will run rampant,” Smaldino told Hannah Devlin at The Guardian.

To top it all off, these tortuous conditions are disproportionately affecting the younger generation of researchers, those who will become the future of the American scientific establishment: “With not enough jobs to go around, young researchers are losing positions to older and more experienced academics”, the article notes.

Given these grim prospects, is there any hope for science in the West? Will researchers end up giving up on the system, leaving the next generation of prospective scientists to consider other jobs? The article ends on a somewhat optimistic note, observing that at least there has emerged more attention and discussion on this matter. But whether such debate will change up the deeply entrenched commercialization of academia and science will be a different story.

Obviously, science is not a wholly corrupted or failed endeavor; this is no reason to dismiss every study out of hand. Plenty of actual, verifiable discoveries and inventions continue to emerge every week. But such progress in the face of these mounting pressures speaks more to the tenacity of researchers than the strength of the system. The gains we have made thus far are tenuous and may be reversed until we reform academia and its funding structure to be more oriented towards public interest than commercialization. After all, the problems and mysteries that science is trying to solve are often in everyone’s best collective interest.

What are your thoughts?


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