Peter Lawrence on the Ills of Modern Science

Peter A. Lawrence is a British biologist who has written several papers about problems with the way biology and other areas of science are now done. In this interview a year ago he summarizes his complaints:

  • Scientific publication “has become a system of collecting counters for particular purposes – to get grants, to get tenure, etc. – rather than to communicate and illuminate findings to other people. The literature is, by and large, unreadable.” There is far too much counting of papers.
  • “There’s a reward system for building up a large group, if you can, and it doesn’t really matter how many of your group fail, as long as one or two succeed. You can build your career on their success.” If you do something on your own it is viewed with suspicion.
  • There is too much emphasis on counting citations. “If you work in a big crowded field, you’ll get many more citations. . . . This is independent of the quality of the work or whether you’ve contributed anything. [There is] enormous pressure on the journals to accept papers that will be cited a lot. And this is also having a corrupting effect. Journals will tend to take papers in medically-related disciplines, for example, that mention or relate to common genetic diseases. Journals from, say, the Cell group, will favor such papers when they’re submitted.”
  • Grant writing takes too much time — e.g., 30-40% of your time. “There is an enormous increase in bureaucracy – form
    filling, targeting, assessment, evaluations. This has gone right through society, like the Black Death!”
  • “Science is not like some kind of an army, with a large number of people who make the main steps forward together. You need to have individually creative people who are making breakthroughs – who make things different. But how do you find those people? I don’t think you want to have a situation in which only those who are competitive and tough can
    get to the top, and those who are reflective and retiring would be cast aside.” I’ve said something similar: Science is like single ants wandering around looking for food, not like a trail of ants to and from a food source. The trail of ants is engineering.

I agree. I would add that I think modern biology is far too invested in the idea that genes cause disease and that studying genes will help reduce human suffering. I think the historical record (the last 30 years) shows that this is not a promising line of work — but modern biologists cannot switch course.

What explains the depressing facts Lawrence points out? I think it is something deep and impossible to change: Science and job don’t mix well. The demands of any job and the demands of science are not very compatible. Jobs are about repetition. Science is the opposite. Jobs demand regular output. Science is unpredictable. However, jobs and science  overlap in terms of training: Both benefit from specialized knowledge. They also overlap in terms of resources: More resources (e.g., better tools) will usually help you do your job better, likewise with science. So we have two groups (insiders — professional scientists — and outsiders — everyone else). Both groups have big advantages and big disadvantages relative to the other. In the last 50 years, the insiders have been “winning” in the sense of doing better work. Their advantages of training and resources far outweighed the problems caused by the need for repetition and predictability. But now — as I try to show on this blog — outsiders are catching up and going ahead because the necessary training and tools have become much more widely available (e.g., tools have become much cheaper). And, as Lawrence emphasizes, professional science has gotten worse.

 

13 Responses to “Peter Lawrence on the Ills of Modern Science”

  1. August Says:

    Celia Green and other members of the Oxford forum decry the loss of personal capital. The wealthy, the aristocrats- these people were independent enough to either do independent research themselves or fund others.

  2. Bob Says:

    I just came across Michael Nielsen’s Reinventing Discovery that looks relevant to this topic.

    http://michaelnielsen.org/blog/reinventing-discovery/

  3. Nandalal Rasiah Says:

    What exactly do you mean regarding genes and disease? It’s already a non-controversial argument that following single genes and developing drugs to target them individually ignores the networks more likely responsible for the disease in question. i.e:
    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2012/01/missing-heritability-interaction-edition/

  4. Nandalal Rasiah Says:

    http://www.genetic-inference.co.uk/blog/2012/01/phantom-heritability-and-additivity/

    that’s a bit clearer re additivity.

  5. dearieme Says:

    Pippard used to draw a distinction between overcrowded and underpopulated fields of science. The latter can be recognised because even quite important results won’t have been replicated. The former can be recognised by the ruthless competition to be first to some discovery – and often after one research group gets there first, another one or two groups will get the same result within weeks. The latter field tends to be characterised, he said, by bad behaviour – his own subject, Physics, was prone to this, he said.

  6. Seth Roberts Says:

    What exactly do you mean regarding genes and disease? It’s already a non-controversial argument that following single genes and developing drugs to target them individually ignores the networks more likely responsible for the disease in question.

    Yes, I’ve heard that. As far as I can tell, it is pure speculation – meaning there is no evidence — that these “networks [are] most likely responsible for the disease in question”. I have yet to see a single example where studying genetic networks has led to useful results. If you know of one, I would like to hear about it.

    What is happening here, as far as I can tell, is that when it turned out that Assumption 1 (single genes matter in common diseases) was wrong, biologists have shifted to Assumption 2 (networks of genes matter in common diseases) that has not yet been disproved. They have no evidence for Assumption 2, just as they had no evidence for Assumption 1.

  7. Mark Says:

    I agree that the whole idea that “genes cause disease” is silly. It’s possible that genes might serve to subdivide a population into groups, some of which might be, for whatever reason, more susceptible to certain diseases, but this in no way implies cause and effect. Take for instance the most basic genetic trait, gender, and one of the most prevelant “diseases”, pregnancy. Being female is certainly a necessary condition for being pregnant, but it is ludicrous to think of it as a cause.

  8. Daniel Lemire Says:

    This is a fantastic find Seth.

    I agree with Bob that Nielsen’s book is a must if we are to address these issues. For those who won’t buy the book immediately, you can check my recent commentary on this topic:

    Open science: why is it so hard?
    http://lemire.me/blog/archives/2012/01/10/open-science-is-hard/

  9. Seth Roberts Says:

    I agree that the whole idea that “genes cause disease” is silly. It’s possible that genes might serve to subdivide a population into groups, some of which might be, for whatever reason, more susceptible to certain diseases, but this in no way implies cause and effect. Take for instance the most basic genetic trait, gender, and one of the most prevelant “diseases”, pregnancy. Being female is certainly a necessary condition for being pregnant, but it is ludicrous to think of it as a cause.

    Yes. I’d put it like this: Genes move susceptibility to this or that environmental deficiency up and down but their effect — in the case of common diseases — appears to be so small relative to the environmental influence that “it is ludicrous to think of [them] as a cause.” For example, genes no doubt move susceptibility to scurvy up and down but it is ludicrous to think of them as a cause of scurvy. At the moment this is the empirical picture. Powerful environmental influences, much weaker genetic ones.

  10. Jazi zilber Says:

    Just reading on the fantastic breakthroughts of gentlemen in the 19th century. For them it was a personal love affair with knowledge, not a job.

    There is denigration of simple stuff.
    Genes, drugs, enzyms, all ultra sophisticated stuff are over studied.

    While simple but emormously useful questions (sleep details. Which mattress is better? Will you be more healthy eating yogurt?) are ignored. As if the glare is most important than life usefulness

  11. Seth Roberts Says:

    For them it was a personal love affair with knowledge, not a job.

    Yes, that is a good way of putting it.

  12. Jif Says:

    Professional science has only gotten worse by some standards. The best science is continually getting better. The rate at which science is being done is increasing. However, the average level of science is decreasing. This makes it easier and easier to find examples of bad, sloppy or pointless work being done to satisfy external bean counting. This is sad but it is not reflective of the best work being done. And, to sneer that science is a “job” and hence less meaningful, reliable or whatever is nonsense. I know of no good scientists (the type this blog ignores) who could not at least double their salaries and greatly decrease ther administrative loads by working in industry.

    We are driven to do science as a passion and put up with the other nonsense so that we can do what we love not asan end to itself.

    The problems mentioned above are real and serious and getting worse. They come from the need for “accountability” to the tax payer and will never improve until we can all be grown ups.

    Cheers, Jif.

    PS the plural of anecdote is not data.

  13. Lemniscate Says:

    I broadly agree with Seth that a lot of science is about funding and prestige and not useful innovation. This can especially be the case with genetics/genomics, which requires massive capital investment and sounds very sophisticated. However, I think you’re being a little premature in writing off the utility of genetics in understanding disease. The greatest promise does not come from accounting for the missing heritability but from discovering relevant biological mechanisms by looking at the genetic influence on disease. There’s no reason why looking for genetic influences on disease and environmental influences on disease have to be in conflict, either: understanding one should help understand the other and build a complete and detailed picture.