The business of science

“…some huge proportion of results published in the scientific journals is wrong or meaningless. In effect, you can think of modern science as a noise-generating machine.”

Gary Taubes, Journalist

The reason for such damnation is that the business of science is about publish-or-perish funding cycles that require researchers to do everything they can to convince others of the importance of their work. They publish as soon as they think they can in as many bite-size chunks as can be diced from the available data, repeating and rehashing as often as possible into any number of different journals. They cite themselves all the time and follow publication metrics with religious fervour.

It is even possible to augment all this on academic social media.

Often this quest to convince others does little more than dupe the eager scientist into believing their own rhetoric.

How do I know? I am guilty of same. Self-aggrandisement has to happen like this or research careers will stall or, in the early days, fail to start.

Gary Taubes identifies a more recent additional problem. He suggests that the noise making feeds the news media in all its forms who happily amplify the din for their own needs. This makes any signals that might be in amongst the noise very hard to detect.

None of this is any good.

It kills scholarship, reduces intellectual debate, limits collaboration and, worst of all, makes it hard for evidence to make it into the public sphere.

At Alloporus Environmental we spend a lot of time running evidence reviews that involve trawls through published research in search of an evidence signal. We find a lot of noise and need to use heavy duty evidence hierarchies as filters to help us decide what is actually useful to our clients.

We also see researchers falling out of objectivity into opinion. This is easy to do if you are trying to convince others, especially if they are your stakeholders who already have opinions they would like to have reinforced.

This also sounds like the business of science has become too ‘business-like’ and perhaps it has. But there are aspects of business that science needed to adopt, not least the requirements for focus, efficiency, and timeliness.

Most of all though business, for better or worse, has a clear objective — profit.

It would be good if we allowed our researchers to focus on their core objective — evidence that improves understanding — and free them from having to make a noise.

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