by Judith Curry
What I saw was a creature not unlike that made by Dr. Frankenstein and which turned onto its creator: neither traditional science nor business, as it is made from incompatible parts taken from both bodies with good intentions but not much forethought. – Yuri Lazebnik
Both the Republic of Science and Science on the Verge discussed the scientific enterprise using a market analogy. In response to these posts, Yuri Lazebnik sent me a paper that he published several years ago regarding the current state of the medical research enterprise. It raises some really issues and provides some fresh insights regarding research institutions, and also speaks to issues raised by Pasteur’s Quadrant. Not to mention that I find the Frankenstein angle to be irresistable.
The title of the paper is: Are scientists a workforce? – Or, how Dr. Frankenstein made biomedical research sick, published in 2015 by EMBO Reports. [link]. Some excerpts from the paper:
Some time ago, I was reading Science’s Careers and cringed at the title “Can NIH renovate the biomedical workforce?” The problem was the word “workforce”, since its Russian equivalent was used by the Communist Party leadership to describe other citizens of the Soviet Union— where I grew up—whom they viewed as mere cogs in a machine at the Party’s disposal.
Noting the mentioning of “scientific workforce” in the plan led me ask whether the systemic flaw that felled the Soviet Union—the leadership/workforce system, with its top-down chain of command—might also be related to the systemic flaws that are taking a shot at the US science.
To summarize the first stage of my differential diagnosis, I found that the relationship within the ecosystem changed from one of advisors, trainees, and colleagues to that of a workforce and its users. This change is difficult to explain solely by money shortages, but it can be explained if we assume the advisors adopted a new behavioral model, likely of corporate origin; a possibility that favored the diagnosis of businessification. I began to suspect, however, that the diagnosis could be more complex because business models are not all alike.
[This] suggests that an immediate consequence of the imbalance between funding and the number of scientists is “hypercompetition for the resources and positions”, which “suppresses the creativity, cooperation, risk-taking, and original thinking required to make fundamental discoveries [. . .] The system now favors those who can guarantee results rather than those with
potentially path-breaking ideas that, by definition, cannot promise success”.
How did it happen that the self-organizing and self-maintaining system of Science, the Endless Frontier, was replaced with the chain of command? Could this change in appearances and the underlying thinking be explained by the imbalance of money and scientists, or does it reflect a wish to run scientific institutions as a business? I favored the latter explanation and proceeded to analyze the next symptom of the malaise, the prevalence of translational research.
Vannevar Bush presciently warned that: “Basic scientific research should not, therefore, be placed under an operating agency whose paramount concern is anything other than research. Research will always suffer when put in competition with operations.” From the operational perspective, a patent related to medicine can bring millions if not billions of dollars to the institution, while wondering why petunias have colored patches may appear to be a waste of much-needed resources (to note, the petunia led to the discovery of RNA interference, a breakthrough that has affected many areas of medicine, from viral infections to cancer). From the operational perspective, funding from the pharmaceutical industry is a gift from heaven, but this gift comes with an implied or explicit focus on research related to medicine. Do we need to look for other explanations for the primacy of translational research beyond those indicated by Bush in his warning?
After reviewing this symptom, I concluded that the prevalence of translation research can be easily explained by businessification. Business and basic science are complex systems that have evolved over centuries side by side in continuous and often unpredictable interaction. The heroes of innovative business and science share a knack for identifying key problems and an obsession with finding a solution, testifying to the commonality of how creative people, whatever they do, think, and act.
Yet, business and basic science have operated by different rules that are determined by the primary purpose of each system. The primary purpose of a business is to generate monetary profit for its owner(s). The purpose of scientific research is to make verifiable discoveries, whether they
have a commercial value or not.
Now, imagine what would happen if the captains of science decided that the primary purpose of basic research is not discovery, but profit. What would those who grew up dreaming of becoming great discoverers think, feel, and do? If reputation based on discovery is no longer the currency, then how should funding be allocated? Hence, the search for surrogates to fill the void—the number of papers published, the number of citations, citation indexes, impact factors, formulas to calculate their relative values, and all other administrative inventions to keep the system operating— with the ultimate measure being the money that scientists can bring in. If discovery is no longer the primary purpose and finding true answers to nature’s questions remains as hard as it is, would the people who accept the first convenient finding for the answer have an advantage in securing funding? Would the people who cannot trade their integrity leave science or decide not to come in?
If discovery is secondary, is it surprising that the traditional model of operation— discover something, verify, convince colleagues (including reviewers) with evidence, publish to secure your credit as the discoverer and letting others know about it, use your credit to get grants, repeat—would change to something different: come up with a nice story, sell it to the reviewers and editors, use the publication as a voucher to get grants to produce more nice stories. If science is a business, why would it matter what is sold? A loss of the sense of purpose can send a person into a tailspin. The same can happen to an institution, to a part of a society, or to society as a whole.
However, I could not see the current scientific institution as a business. What I saw was a creature not unlike that made by Dr. Frankenstein and which turned onto its creator: neither traditional science nor business, as it is made from incompatible parts taken from both bodies with good intentions but not much forethought.
To avoid the word “Frankenstein”, I would call this hybrid entity pseudo-business, by analogy to pseudoscience, which is an activity that pretends to be science but does not follow its basic rules. If this hybrid has any purpose, it is to maintain and expand itself.
As systems theory suggests, and as Dr. Frankenstein belatedly learned, merging complex systems is inherently prone to produce unexpected results. As a general rule, the more different the systems are, the more likely their hybrid would have unexpected properties. The differences between business and basic science are difficult to miss, making the malaise a predictable outcome.
A correct diagnosis might help to understand what these interests are and help scientists, funders, administrators, and policymakers act accordingly, using both therapy and surgery.
The ship is titanic in size, the inertia is comparable, the captains’ quarters are comfortable, and the crew and passengers have come to assume that they have as much leverage as they would on a military ship. I also hope that the Carnegies, Stanfords, and Hopkinses of today, perhaps with some help from the government, will build new ships, perhaps smaller, but more agile and steered by crews who are not afraid to sail in uncharted waters.
This paper presents a novel angle to diagnosing the reason for the dysfunctional aspects of scientific research, in terms of the structure of institutions that has resulted from a businessification of research.
A previous post Pasteur’s Quadrant addressed the conflicts between ‘use-inspired’ and ‘pure basic’ research, which relates to Lazebnik’s description of ‘pure’ versus ‘translational’ research. We need both pure and applied research, but the university environment is uniquely configured (in principle) to support pure research, whereas many government labs and the private sector are configured for translational and applied research.
With the decline of research funding from the federal government, universities are focusing more and more on innovation and spawning start-up companies (something that makes state governments who fund higher education particularly happy). This is a good thing, but pure research needs to be nurtured.
Over the past 30 years, I’ve been at a range of universities with a succession of administrations, ranging from strong faculty/weak administration, strong but lean administration with strong faculty, and overblown administration that views faculty members as necessary troublemakers. The sweet spot is strong but lean administration that fosters a strong and autonomous faculty – a rare combination that characterized Georgia Tech when I joined the faculty in 2002.
There is a conflict in universities (in hiring and rewarding faculty) in terms of valuing fundamental discoveries that change the way we think about something, versus rewarding ‘flashiness’ – large number of publications, grantsmanship and nice stories that the media likes. When I was hiring and rewarding faculty, I fought to reward faculty members that were making fundamental discoveries. Faculty members with ‘flash’ tend to be the ones that are recruited by other institutions, and retaining such faculty members was a decision made by people several pay grades higher than me. I also didn’t focus on funding, beyond a faculty member’s ability to bring in a baseline of funding to support a small research group. However, there is a strong push from Deans and Vice Chancellors for Research to bring in more research $$.
But the fact remains that the culture in universities, with the many demands on faculty members and the extreme competitiveness at the major research universities, that it is very difficult for a faculty member to justify, let alone find, a sustained amount of time to tackle the really difficult and important problems. Peter Higgs (of Higgs boson fame) lamented that it seems impossible in the current university environment to devote the amount of focus and time required to make such discoveries.
The key issue is fostering research that ‘sails in uncharted waters’. Apart from consensus groupthink issues, there is a growing concern that the reward system for university faculty members makes it much more advantageous to do pick the low hanging fruit — research problems that will attract funding, produce many papers and a few press releases — rather than to tackle the big/hard problems.
New structures and incentives are needed to support “smaller, but more agile and steered by crews who are not afraid to sail in uncharted waters.” Bill Gates, Charles Koch, and other industrialists are spending substantial funds to support research on specific big challenge issues – which may be addressed by either small teams or by big scientific teams. I think this is a good thing (and a very useful complement/balance to government funding).
But this still does not solve the institutional problem at universities that impedes (more or less) ground-breaking, verifiable research. One of the most interesting models for conducting scientific research that I’ve come across is the IHMC Florida Institute of Human & Machine Cognition, a private not for profit research institution. Here is a link [IHMC] that describes the uniqueness of IHMC:
Ken Ford, one of IHMC’s founders and its CEO, has structured the institute so that bureaucracy doesn’t get in the way of science On the science and technology staff, the institute has no departments, no standing committees and no administrators or middle managers, whom Ford calls ‘vacuum cleaners of passion.’
Each scientist, Ford says, is an enrepreneur who must attract funding support his or her work. Ford says IHMC does no strategic planning, avoiding the game of trying to identify ‘hot’ research fields and then competing against the likes of MIT for scientists in those areas. Instead, IHMC gets its direction from hiring the right people and turning them loose. His recruiting efforts boil down to looking for ‘remarkable people whom we think would be wonderful colleagues.”
Its an approach that generates serendipity. IHMC is one of only a few research efforts in Florida that are truly world class, and the only one that is breaking ground not just on the research it does, but how it organized itself to get that research done. It’s something for the state to keep in mind as it considers the how much and where of research funding.
I visited IHMC last fall, and have been invited to visit again next December. If there was such an institution in the environmental science field, I would join it in a heartbeat. If some philanthropist would like to seed me with the funds to start such an institution for climate science, send me an email.