I have alluded in a few of my other posts to my frustration with science as a discipline. Usually when I explain my job to people, the reaction is: “wow, that must be so cool!” And 90% of the time, I would agree, but…like I suspect is the case with a lot of jobs, being a scientist is one of those things that looks hella cool from the outside but has a hidden darkness under the surface. It’s like how there’s the spunky public-facing Sonic the Hedgehog most of us know and love…
…and then there’s the internet’s version of Sonic the Hedgehog.
There is such a thing as knowing too much.
While it certainly won’t take us to as disturbing of a place as that image just did, let’s dive into the belly of the beast: what makes science so frustrating sometimes?
Firstly, and perhaps more importantly, why should you care about my scruples with my job? These scruples are pretty central sicknesses for science and they are often what drive people, especially women and minorities, out of a career in science. That’s important because we know that science is better when it is conducted by diverse teams. On top of that, these problems contribute to keeping science inaccessible to the public, which is a problem for scientists and society alike.
So, what do I have scruples with? Lucky for us, like an over-prepared job applicant science has already invented a catchy spin on each of its own flaws. For every well-known woe in the science community, there is an equally well-known adage:
“Publish or Perish”
Let’s take down the biggest monster first. No matter where a whinging conversation with my colleagues re: science problems starts, it always seems to end here. This is the trunk to the tree of science problems, if you will.
“Publish or perish” refers to the intensely competitive career progression framework scientists are subject to, in which their success depends hugely upon two things: the number of publications they have produced and the “impact factor” (a quantified measure of influence) of the journals they publish in. Pressure to constantly be producing high quantities of high impact research leads to a whole host of problems: scientists manipulating their studies to unfaithfully produce statistically significant results (“p-hacking”), high levels of stress (especially for young professors attempting to compete for tenure), neglect and de-prioritization of professors’ other work responsibilities (for example: communication with the public, mentoring of students), and ultimately a broken method of judging what makes a scientist “good.” The “publish or perish” model will always favour scientists that find the most effective ways to boost their own metrics and patently ignores many important criteria that should factor into a professor’s career advancement.
One majorly unfortunate effect of Publish or Perish is that it plays a role in discouraging women from pursuing professional careers as academics. Part of what makes a researcher competitive is maintaining a so-called “uninterrupted continuous publication record,” AKA not taking any breaks from publishing papers. For women, the sex burdened with the task of carrying another human for 9 months at a time, this type of inflexibility in a career path is a big deterrent. On top of that, all other sorts of gender inequalities have been documented in science: women miss out on publishing opportunities early in their careers compared to men, papers written by women are referenced less, women receive lower-quality mentoring as graduate students, and advisers tend to overvalue work produced by men. At the end of the day, even though women account for half of the graduate workforce in biology, professorship remains a male-dominated career with only an estimated 29-36% of tenure-track professors being women. Similar publishing biases exist against ethnic minorities, making the Publish or Perish model look pretty unpromising for boosting diversity in science.
“Ivory Tower Syndrome”
I’ve kind of beat this dead horse already, but it can’t be said enough: science should be shared with the public. The “ivory tower” saying refers to a long-standing problem afflicting science: academics tend to become isolated in their own bubble and disregard the input of those from outside their professional community. I see two big problems with this. One: the scientific method and its discoveries are held out of reach of the public, resulting in a disconnect between scientists and the public. Two: when scientists attempt to breach this disconnect, they tend to treat the uninformed public condescendingly and forget to have an equal back-and-forth dialogue.
However, it’s probably fair to include this kind of hasty science communication as a branch on the tree of “publish or perish:” when your career depends so single-mindedly on publications, it’s hard to find the time to prioritize public outreach. It’s important to take pause to remember that the public has a stake in science and research dollars do come from somewhere (i.e., the taxpayer).
“The Crisis of Reproducibility”
One of the landmark characteristics of science that’s meant to make it more reliable than other sources of knowledge is the fact that it can be verified through repetition. For all intents and purposes, this is apparently why all scientific publications include a horrendously lengthy and detailed “Materials and Methods” section: so if one were inclined to verify the study, they could use this as a guide to reproduce the work. However, reproducing each other’s work has fallen largely by the wayside in science because of (you guessed it) intense competition for publication in high impact journals. The greater the novelty and originality of a study, the more likely it will be published in a high impact journal and thus read and referenced heavily by other scientists. This is a huge deal for the publishing author’s career. So here we are again, back at “publish or perish.” We’re noticing a cycle.
Scientists are acutely aware of this problem and hence have dubbed it “the crisis of reproducibility.” Which sounds like someone’s hot take documentary about how the printing press actually ruined modern society.
But seriously: scientists know they need to address this problem, but no one can bring themselves to do it because it would impede the progress of their career. Journals could decrease their emphasis on novelty, but this too seems to run counter to the philosophy of science: we should always be striving to build on each other’s hypotheses. Work that introduces revolutionary ideas or technologies probably should be rewarded more than verification studies; there just needs to be some reward for reproducing science at all.
Staring down the barrel of these problems, funnelling my career into being a full-time academic is a daunting idea. There is a lot to celebrate about doing scientific research too, of course; like our timeless old friend Ted Geisel once wrote, “life’s a great balancing act.” As a young lady scientist, I find my upcoming life choices depending on whether the ups of academic life could hypothetically outweigh the downs.
Another great article that sums up today’s problems facing science can be found here.