Jan 02, 2017
Why we should fix inequalities in science
Science is a source of progress and the best hope for the future of mankind. With a world population reaching seven billion individuals and a growing consumption of (increasingly scarce) natural resources, the only chance that we have to avoid the collapse of civilization caused by our own expansion is to find new strategies for sustainable development. But addressing this challenge will be impossible without the support of scientific and technological innovation.
Thanks to scientific research, we have conquered space, developed therapies for devastating pathologies, and explored the mysteries of matter. Science is illuminating our understanding of the most complex object in nature—the brain—and expanding our knowledge of the universe. But today, science is suffering from several diseases.
In most countries, researchers strive to find the economic resources to carry out their research and keep their jobs. Since research funding is scarce, scientists are forced to compete with peers in order to obtain them. The odds of winning this hard competition, however, are increasingly more dependent upon the scientific impact and productivity of grant seekers than they are on the excellence of the research proposals. As a consequence, researchers who are not able to produce a decent number of publications on sufficiently prestigious outlets have almost no chance of receiving funding and realizing their ideas. This is why the notorious motto, publish or perish, has become the #1 concern of most researchers in the world.
The pressure to publish has several negative implications. First, it pushes conflicts of interest and risks of scientific misconduct, for example falsification or fabrication of data. Furthermore, the spasmodic need to increase one’s h-index (a way to measure academic impact) leads researchers (and especially younger scholars) to focus on topics that are currently more mainstream or fashionable, and thus more likely to attract a greater number of citations from other authors. And last - but not least - while the rush to publish can generate more papers, it also increases the volume of poor scientific work. It could be argued that only a competitive system, such as the current one, can make it possible to select the best talents and ideas, thus ensuring the highest return on investment for society. But in reality, there is no evidence that the increase in scientific productivity is associated with better research outcomes.
Furthermore, as recently shown by University of Michigan sociologist Yu Xie, science is becoming more and more a ‘‘winner takes all’’ field, in which a few talented scientists receive much greater recognition and rewards than lesser-known scientists for comparable contributions. As a consequence, many young researchers, although brilliant, have little chance of being recognized at all because most of the available resources are taken by the ‘‘giants’’ of their scientific disciplines. But in addition to diminishing integrity, lowering scientific quality, and spreading frustration among younger scholars, the current system may also threaten the very driving forces behind science: the passion to invent and discover. As noted by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, two prominent experts of innovation, ‘‘what doesn’t motivate creativity can kill it.’’