Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Science is broken II

This week three excellent articles have been brought my attention that highlight current problems with science and academia. The first two are in the Guardian newspaper.

How journals like Nature, Cell and Science are damaging science
The incentives offered by top journals distort science, just as big bonuses distort banking
Randy Schekman, a winner of the 2013 Nobel prize for medicine.

Peter Higgs: I wouldn't be productive enough for today's academic system
Physicist doubts work like Higgs boson identification achievable now as academics are expected to 'keep churning out papers'

How academia resembles a drug gang is a blog post by Alexandre Afonso, a lecturer in Political Economy at Kings College London. He takes off from the fascinating chapter in Freakanomics, "Why drug dealers still live with their moms." It is because they all hope they are going to make the big time and eventually become head of the drug gang. Academia has a similar hierarchical structure with a select few tenured and well-funded faculty who lead large "gangs" of Ph.D students, postdocs, and "adjunct" faculty. They soldier on in the slim hope that one day they will make the big time... just like the gang leader.
The main idea here is highlighting some of the personal injustices of the current system. That is worth a separate post. What does this have to do with good/bad science? This situation is a result of the problems highlighted in the two Guardian articles. In particular, many of these "gangs" are poorly supervised and produce low quality science. This is due to the emphasis on quantity and marketability, rather than quality and reproducibility.


  1. I don't see why you think the latter situation is the result of the former problems. Surely it is primarily the result of the low supply of and high demand for academic jobs/drug lordships

  2. Hi Ben,
    Thanks for the comment. I spoke too loosely. I should have said that the latter situation is compounded by the former problems. Specifically, the desire for large "outputs" and leads to an oversupply of Ph.Ds because they are cheap labour. If the goal was higher quality science more money would be spent on creating permanent jobs rather than on short-term positions.

  3. In human affairs, I think most things are always broken. But the manner in which they are broken, and how badly, varies between time and place.

  4. Afonso's blog post is very interesting, though also very depressing.

    One difference I see with the drug connection though, is that a lot of people do a PhD and even a postdoc or two with no intention of staying in academia. I don't know the proportions, but I have met many who take this view. Although relatively low paid, depending on the advisor they can be wonderfully relaxed, engaging jobs, that allow you to travel and live abroad, etc. In countries like Germany, it seems that a PhD/postdoc is quite respected by industry and so can even be a reasonable use of a few years. At least, that's the view that German postdocs I've met tend to take.

    Nevertheless, the system stinks.

    Hah, Higgs sounds like an interesting guy. Uni. Edinburgh doesn't come off sounding so great though.