The Health of Science

05/29/2012 04:09 pm ET | Updated Jul 29, 2012

How healthy is science today? Well, the report is mixed. On one hand, we are witnessing tremendous scientific progress. We often take past achievements for granted -- cell phones and GPS, the explosion of the digital revolution, the eradication of smallpox, jet planes and the green revolution, which has greatly reduced the likelihood of famines. There are new targeted drugs to treat cancer and HIV infection, rovers exploring Mars, and progressive decoding of the genomes of life. On the other hand, science is showing signs of stress and even outright dysfunction. We must get the scientific enterprise back on track.

Among the general public, science faces increasing skepticism from individuals who either do not understand its methods or do not like its conclusions. Witness the acrimonious debate about global warming, recurring efforts to keep evolution out of school textbooks or controversy over the need for universal vaccination.

Throughout the world, most basic research is supported by public funds, but these have become scarcer at a time of global economic crisis. Only eighteen percent of grant proposals submitted to the National Institutes of Health, the main government research funding body in the United States, are approved -- down from around thirty percent in the 1980s. Federal investment in research and development as a percentage of GDP has continued to decline to historically low levels (the economist Paula Stephan has noted that we now spend almost twice as much on beer as the government spends on research). Other concerns include increasing regulation of scientific experimentation, an imbalance in the scientific workforce such that many young scientists cannot find jobs in science and deteriorating infrastructure as obsolescent equipment and facilities are not replaced.

The current wonders of science are a result of investments made by prior generations who bequeathed us knowledge for our use and well-being. It is now our challenge to ensure that the pace of knowledge is maintained so that future generations have the tools to deal with the unique challenges they will face.

There are also serious problems within the scientific establishment itself. The reward system in science is based on an ancient winner-takes-all economic model that fosters competition while also creating losers. Society benefits from this competition as scientists race to solve problems but competition that becomes too fierce can also have unhealthy consequences. In sports, disproportionate rewards to winners have triggered doping scandals. In science, the goal of a prize, a grant, or a job can occasionally lead scientists to take shortcuts and wade into a cesspool of misconduct.

Before discussing this topic further, let us first make clear that we believe the overwhelming majority of scientists to be hardworking and honest individuals who are principally motivated by curiosity about the natural world and a desire to use their expertise for the benefit of humanity. But even a few individuals engaging in misconduct can do great damage, especially when they work in areas of enormous importance to society such as autism, cancer, and aging research. Such scandals are highly visible and can serve to erode public trust in science.

A measure of the health of science may be found in the rising number of retracted scientific papers. There are convincing data to indicate that this number has been rapidly increasing in recent years and that a large substantial proportion of these retractions are due to misconduct. We recently published two editorials in Infection and Immunity, and presented at the March 27 meeting of the National Academies of Sciences committee on science, technology and the law.

To an optimist, the increasing rate of retractions can be seen as evidence that science is self-correcting and that it ferrets out miscreants. However, the number and the consequences of retractions are anything but a cause for optimism. Each retraction represents a tremendous waste of money, human resources, and prestige, and some have even misdirected the course of science. Moreover, retracted papers represent only a fraction of flawed studies, and there is ample reason to fear that the stresses and perverse incentives that occasionally lead a few to commit misconduct are also discouraging scientists from pursuing high-risk ideas that might lead to revolutionary breakthroughs and engendering biases that can undermine the credibility and reliability of scientific literature.

The critical importance of science to humanity, along with evidence that this endeavor is under increasing stress, suggests the need for a renewed dialogue among scientists and with the society that they serve on how best to improve the scientific enterprise. We have tried to jump-start this discussion by proposing a set of reforms regarding the culture of science, the methods by which scientists work and train, and the structural foundation of societal support for science. Consideration of reforms involving culture and methods will principally take place within the scientific community, but structural reforms that involve the stabilization of research funding and creation of new opportunities for young scientists will require engagement with and support from the larger society.

We call for nothing short of a major reformation of the scientific enterprise.

Humanity faces major challenges in the 21st century, including climate change and other environmental degradation, population growth, increasing morbidity from chronic illnesses and emerging infectious diseases, rising demands for energy, epidemic obesity and malnutrition, and the information explosion that has accompanied the digital revolution. Although each of these problems has political dimensions that can ameliorate or aggravate their consequences, ultimate solutions lie in the scientific realm.

As working scientists, we continue to believe that science represents humanity's best hope to address its most serious challenges. We are not so naïve as to believe that a call for reform by itself will lead to reform. As Machiavelli dryly warned, "There is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to set up as a leader in the introduction of changes." However, many great reforms throughout history have started as a conversation among concerned citizens. The health of the scientific process is sufficiently important to the future of society that we have no choice except to try.

The opinions and recommendations are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of their affiliated institutions, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, University of Washington or American Society for Microbiology.