Link: The Intellectual and Moral Decline in Academic Research

A very pessimistic view on the state of research quality in America, particularly in public health research. Some choice quotes:

My experiences at four research universities and as a National Institutes of Health (NIH) research fellow taught me that the relentless pursuit of taxpayer funding has eliminated curiosity, basic competence, and scientific integrity in many fields.

Yet, more importantly, training in “science” is now tantamount to grant-writing and learning how to obtain funding. Organized skepticism, critical thinking, and methodological rigor, if present at all, are afterthoughts.

From 1970 to 2010, as taxpayer funding for public health research increased 700 percent, the number of retractions of biomedical research articles increased more than 900 percent, with most due to misconduct.

The widespread inability of publicly funded researchers to generate valid, reproducible findings is a testament to the failure of universities to properly train scientists and instill intellectual and methodologic rigor.

academic research is often “conducted for no other reason than to give physicians and researchers qualifications for promotion or tenure.” In other words, taxpayers fund studies that are conducted for non-scientific reasons such as career advancement

Incompetence in concert with a lack of accountability and political or personal agendas has grave consequences: The Economist stated that from 2000 to 2010, nearly 80,000 patients were involved in clinical trials based on research that was later retracted.

Still, there is some hope for reform. The last three paragraphs suggest abolishing overheads, have limits on the number of grants recieved by and the maximum age of PIs, and preventing the use of public funding for publicity. These seem resonable to me, how do others feel about them?

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One reason non-government organisations lead the battle to improve science is that universities and federal funding agencies lack accountability and often ignore fraud and misconduct. … Those facts are an open secret: When anonymously surveyed, over 14 percent of researchers report that their colleagues commit fraud and 72 percent report other questionable practices. The problem goes well beyond the known frauds.

We haven’t yet designed a training course or guidelines on good research practices for IGDORE researchers, but I hope that 0% of our members commit academic fraud and that our use of questionable researcher practices is already well under the average of traditional universities.

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Honestly, I have always thought that the US research quality is the highest. I sort of have this mindset that American universities and academics show us the way.

Unfortunately, in Russia the situation resembles you’re describing. Most do science here because you have to do something at the university and basically for promotion.

I think many is here for this reason

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I cross-posted this to the EA Forum and copy in a comment I made there about my personal experience:

Still, my feeling is that this is closer to the truth than we’d want. For instance, from working in three research groups (robotics, neuroscience, basic biology), I’ve seen that the topic (e.g. to round out somebody’s profile) and participants (e.g re-doing experiments somebody else did so they don’t have to be included as an author, instead of just using their results directly) of a paper are often selected mainly on perceived career benefits rather than scientific merit. This is particularly true when the research is driven by junior researchers rather than established professors, as the value of papers to former is much more about if they will help get grants and a faculty position rather than their scientific merit. For example, it’s very common that a group of post-docs and PhDs will collaborate to produce a paper without a professor to ‘demonstrate’ their independence, but these collaborations often just end up describing an orphan finding or obscure method that will never be really be followed up on, and the junior researchers time could arguable have produced more scientifically meaningful results if they focused on their main project. Of course, its hard to evaluate how such practices influence academic progress in the long run, but they seem inefficient in the short-term and stem from a perverse incentive of careerism.

My impression is that questionable research practices probably vary a lot by research field, and the fields most susceptible to using poor practices are probably ones where the value of the findings won’t really be known for a long time, like basic biology research. My experience in neuroscience and biology is that much more ‘spin’, speculation, and story telling goes into presenting the biological findings than there was in robotics (where results are usually clearer steps along a path towards a goal). While a certain amount of story telling is required to present a research finding convincingly, it has become a bit of a one-up game in biology where your work really has to be presented as a critical step towards an applied outcome (like curing a disease, or inspiring a new type of material) for anybody to take it seriously, even when it’s clearly blue-sky research that hasn’t yet found an application.

As for the author, it looks like he is no longer working in Academia. From his publication record it looks like he was quite productive for a mid-career researcher, and although he may have an axe to grind (presumably he applied for many faculty positions but didn’t get any, common story) being outside the Ivory Tower can provide a lot more perspective about it’s failings than what you get from inside it.

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I think that the average quality of US research output has declined significantly since the 1980s, in part because of the reasons described in this article.

An interesting observation I’ve made after moving to Brazil is that researchers here seem much less inclined to ‘oversell’ their results compared what I experienced when working in Australian and Swedish Universities (although I don’t work in Academia here, so my exposure is more limited). People doing basic research on things like animal genomes or insect behaviour describe the implications for doing this directly, rather than ‘spinning’ it to be research leading to preventing extinctions or having large agricultural benefits (for example). Of course, there is still applied research being done and those researchers generally indicate more direct benefits will result from their work, but I was impressed that basic researchers don’t feel as pressured to present their work as in the context of an application.

I’m not sure what causes the differences in basic research culture. Unfortunately, the pessimistic take on this is that because there is so little research funding in Brazil there aren’t really many benefits to be gained by overselling ones results.

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@Gavin, you have got to read the comment section. I am having so much fun reading it. :slight_smile:

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I guess a controversial article is likely to get a lot of heated comments! For what it’s worth I think the author much more pessimistic and overly general than the situation actually warrants, although I feel the direction of his ideas are more aligned with reality than ‘business as usual’.

Aside, strangely I could not get the comment section to show in Chrome (my primary browser), even after turning off a few adblockers/privacy extensions. It seems the Disqus comment system the site uses has a somewhat poor reputation.

The comments should be read before we discuss more based on them. :slight_smile:

Now i’ve read the comments on ea forum too. Similar to the other comment section, but less back-and-forth.

There are a lot of background assumptions i wish to discuss, some of which have been covered by the comments.

Understanding these assumptions would provide another perspective to the original article and the comments in disqus and ea forum.

I would like to discuss just one assumption now, that of ‘taxpayer money’. It turns out that: (1) taxes are not needed to fund government programs, in addition of the term (2) ‘taxpayer money’ having racist and exclusionary origin.

(1) http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?p=9281

(2) https://uncpress.org/book/9781469638942/racial-taxation/

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0896920516645657

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Thanks, @surya, those links provide an interesting perspective. I will certainly be more careful about how I use the word ‘taxpayer’ in future :slight_smile:

I must admit that I’m not very familiar with national monetary policy, and so I would previously have assumed that government agencies like the NIH were directly funded by government revenue or borrowing. So the point here is that individual taxpayers don’t have the right to be indignant about their funds are being misspent by the NIH, as their taxes are not, in fact, being used by the NIH? That may be true technically, but the NIH does still receive resources from the government and I intuitively feel that citizens of a country can, and should, expect their government and public institutions to use resources wisely. Although I am not completely certain there is a sound political basis for that expectation if somebody can’t claim to directly fund the government with their taxes.

With regards to the racist origins of taxation, I also have to admit I had never really considered that before. It does seem easy to portray a non-tax payer as somebody who doesn’t contribute to their society and isn’t entitled to receive benefits from it, although that position is contradicted by the actual role of taxes described in the links you posted. Do you think that when taxpayers complain that research funds are being misspent, they are essentially complaining that not enough research is being done to solve their problems? I would disagree with that as it does seem like much more support has goes towards research on issues (particularly in public health) affecting the average tax-payer compared to stereotypical non-tax payers within a country, let alone people outside of the country (I once heard more money has been spent researching cures for baldness than Malaria, although I expect that includes commercial research expenditure as well). Alternatively, by saying that researchers pursue taxpayer funding (rather than scientific funding) the author may be making the implicit assumption that researchers compete to work on projects in the taxpayers’ interest, rather than scientific interest. What do you think?

Funnily enough, although I fit into the tax-payer ‘stereotype’ (educated white middle-class male) I’ve received most of my life-time income as untaxed scholarships and have probably paid the most tax in Brazil, the country I feel least cultural affiliation to!

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thanks gavin… pardon the brevity of my quick reply… i would reply longer when i have more time… :slight_smile:

gavin: “were directly funded by government revenue or borrowing”:

surya: this has been empirically disproven since about 60 years ago. if you are interested, i could give you the relevant and authoritative literature. but i’m afraid i would swamp you with readings. still, if you are interested, i could send them to you. in essence, government agencies are not funded by revenue or borrowing, but by the DECISION to create government’s national budget. for the u.s case, the decision is made by congress.

g: “the point here is that individual taxpayers don’t have the right to be indignant about their funds are being misspent by the NIH, as their taxes are not , in fact, being used by the NIH?”

s: this is NOT the point. i could explain in much more detail, but i would like to speed up and go to the conclusion that the term ‘taxpayer money’ should be replaced by ‘PUBLIC money’ for the phrase ‘right to be indignant’ to be maintained.

g: “citizens of a country can, and should, expect their government and public institutions to use resources wisely.”

s: this is exactly the issue. we must go deep into democratic theory, or broader, state theory (which need not be democratic), to continue discussion. in essence, by using the term ‘taxpayer money’, many, and it might even be the case, the MAJORITY of citizens are excluded from government decision. paying taxes is not a requirement for citizenship, otherwise many citizens would have their citizenship status revoked when they are unable to pay taxes.

g: “there is a sound political basis for that expectation if somebody can’t claim to directly fund the government with their taxes.”

s: this is where we need to go deep into demoratic theory. i would send you relevant literature, but i am afraid i would swamp you with readings. but if you’re willing, i would send them to you.

i would answer the 2nd paragraph later, to better manage my time. :slight_smile:

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more reply:

g: “Do you think that when taxpayers complain that research funds are being misspent, they are essentially complaining that not enough research is being done to solve their problems?”

s: with the understanding of my earlier reply, this should read as: “… when the PUBLIC complain that research funds are being misspent…”

g: “Alternatively, by saying that researchers pursue taxpayer funding (rather than scientific funding) the author may be making the implicit assumption that researchers compete to work on projects in the taxpayers’ interest, rather than scientific interest. What do you think?”

s: i would not agree to this framing…

i would put it this way… researchers, just like any other humans, are not immune to rewards and punishment, (or STRUCTURE) of their professions…

if we (the PUBLIC) wish researchers to pursue scientific (however defined) interest, then the structure must be modified accordingly…

who created the current structure? public and private elites… in democratic states, the public certainly have power over public elites, so they should pressure these public elites to change the structure…

now, why is the public concerned with science and scientific advancement? to my understanding, this concern is often expressed in state’s constitution, which created the public in each particular state…

then we come to the issue what if the public interest sometimes clashes against scientific interest? well, this is where (democratic) negotiation takes place… scientists must convince the public that science is useful for them, in all its seeming ‘uselessness’…

many times the scientists only need to convince the public elites for this, not the public as a whole… but i think it’s good if scientists are always in touch with the public as a whole with regards to their work if they use public funding…

in conclusion, i had fun reading the comments, both at the original site and ea forum, because some commenters ‘pierced the veil of ideology’ behind the original article, and some of the back-and-forth were hilarious with my knowledge of ‘money and the state’… would love to expand on this later when i have time… :slight_smile:

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i think this book and is surrounding discussion is useful to this conversation:

https://marianamazzucato.com/entrepreneurial-state/

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Thanks for the additional comments @surya. I’ll admit that hadn’t considered the issues off taxpayers, public money, and citizenship on the interpretation of this article, so your thoughts have provided a useful perspective. To comment further on a few points:

… researchers, just like any other humans, are not immune to rewards and punishment, (or STRUCTURE) of their professions…

Agreed. I’ve found the book Real Science to be a useful description of the structure of academia from an internal perspective. However, a lot of the structures are formed by interaction with society, and so I’d now looking to learn a bit more about what citizens, states, and democratic society expect from Academia and how they interact with it. Do you have any reading suggestions with regards to this (at a general level, as you say, the details will vary by state)?

then we come to the issue what if the public interest sometimes clashes against scientific interest? well, this is where (democratic) negotiation takes place… scientists must convince the public that science is useful for them, in all its seeming ‘uselessness’…

My tentative view is that a lot of the current clash between public and scientific interest comes from misaligned time frames between the two groups. Historically, basic science has provided a solid foundation for innovation and translational work, but such work seems to be best done with a long-term outlook. However, both the common and elite public appear to currently favour short-term solutions to their problems, which seem to have created structures that force science to focus on short-term results, and which may prevent basic science the basic science required to create the foundations for disruptive innovations in many fields. This is the direction I was going when writing (adjusting taxpayer to public):

by saying that researchers pursue public funding (rather than scientific funding) the author may be making the implicit assumption that researchers compete to work on projects in the public interest, rather than scientific interest.

So my view there was that the article’s author was saying scientists are competing to satisfy the public’s apparent demand in short-term/translational ‘solutions’ (which are rewarded by the current structure), rather than the more traditional academic goal of understanding through basic research. Hopefully that is a bit clearer now.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I have the time to take a deep-dive in monetary policy. However, the entrepreneurial state book you suggested looks interesting and I’ll try and read it for an introduction to these matters. Doing Capitalism in the Innovation Economy is another book on my to read list that sounds complimentary.

I heard about it on a podcast with the author (Idea Machines - Episode 20). Actually, I think you might like some of the other episodes on there, so I’d recommend checking the channel out if you have time.

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thanks @Gavin for the reply. :slight_smile:

i think scientists have to show that they care for the public so the public care for the scientists. the assumption is of course in democratic society, the ‘public will’ prevails, so the political elites must care what the public wants them to care, if they wish to remain elites.

i define this care in the broadest terms, from survival to flourishing. if scientists as a group wish to survive and flourish, the public should be in that condition too.

in this vein, i would recommend the train-of-thought of alex lancaster, which you may have read:

http://ronininstitute.org/open-science-and-its-discontents/1383/

i especially like this quote: https://controlc.com/6c4bbcb8.

some chapters in this book is also relevant to our discussion: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-319-09785-5.

on this topic, i would also recommend romer’s swedish bank prize description here: https://www.nobelprize.org/uploads/2018/10/popular-economicsciencesprize2018.pdf

and his blog articles in general: https://paulromer.net/archive/

last but not least, thanks also for your recommendations: real science book, doing capitalism book, and idea machines podcast. i have spent some time finding out more on each of them, and indeed have immediately liked an episode in the podcast. in fact, the first entry “funding breakthrough research”.

i also like that the doing capitalism book introduction at amazon begins with hyman minsky’s recommendation. minsky is foundational to to the work that i’m currently doing. :slight_smile:

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on the way back home today from a friend’s house, i remembered the conference ‘money as a democratic medium’, which i think is relevant to this conversation:

https://sites.google.com/view/hls-money-as-democratic-medium/home

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