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.