By: Marina Walther-Antonio
THE PROBLEM: SCIENCE AS A PRIVATE CLUB
Science is an activity reserved to the intellectuals, the “smart ones”. This is the general perception, which let’s be honest, is reinforced, if not cherished by most scientists and the scientific establishment. And while the scientific profession certainly requires the understanding of what the scientific method is, and how to properly and ethically conduct scientific activities, none of those concepts are out of reach to any living human being. Formulating and testing a scientific hypothesis can be rigorously performed by a child, a plumber, a teacher, a physician, an astronaut. In fact, most of us formulate and test hypotheses on a daily basis: “Which of these knifes cuts this pineapple better?”, followed by “I wonder why this knife is better, perhaps because it is serrated?”, “Let me check if it is also the best one to cut bread?”. Simple questions like these are part of the inquisitive human nature, and reflect the foundations of scientific thinking and approaches. However, most people do not think of themselves as having a scientific mind, or of being capable of having one. Why is that?
The scientific profession, just like any other, protects their professional ranks and activities by necessitating training and degrees to prove competency. This is appropriate. But is it appropriate to alienate others from their activities? Why is the primary means of scientific communication (scientific journals) largely closed access?
The closed access is not only to non-professional scientists and general population, but also to other scientists in other scientific fields, to scientists working within Institutions not subscribing to those journals, scientists working for industry, and even retired scientists. Why should this information be so protected? Some will say that others would not understand those scientific articles anyway, because they are so specialized and filled with technical jargon. But if that is the case, why protect the content anyway? It seems like the content of those journals protects itself by the use of code vocabulary either way. Instead, the societal impact at large is that if it were not for journalists and a few scientists, no one knows what is actually happening in a specific scientific field, and it all starts to look like magic. With no information flow, locked documents, and no translation of the code words being used, science has become an enigma to most people. The enigma is such that the significance or relevance to our World becomes questionable, including to those people deciding what should happen to scientific activities.
So, there is a policy of restricted dissemination that the scientific establishment has created and enabled that has escalated through time with the increased sub-specialization of scientific fields. This in essence has transformed science into a private club that only certain paying members can access and belong to. The second layer to this problem relates to the legitimacy and authorization for science, which creates a second private club, which is the one that funds and supports scientific activities. Scientific activities at the governmental level are largely funded based on reputation. Only individuals belonging to reputable organizations, who have published in reputable journals, and who are connected to reputable scientists have the opportunity to achieve sizable scientific funding for their research proposals. All of these factors are openly scored and are part of the criteria for evaluation of the scientific proposal. Yet, should they? Why is a scientific approach and proposed solution to a problem being evaluated based on the reputation of the Institution, prior accomplishments, and the peers of said individual? Shouldn’t science be evaluated for exactly that, the science?
This has created and reinforced a culture of an “old boys club” where only those with connections to the establishment can gain entry. This second privatization of science further aggravates the rift between society and professional scientists and even between scientists, as it disenfranchises and delegitimizes scientific activities, alienating large portions of it. While the policies may have been put in place to protect scientific professionalism and lead to the development of science that builds upon a solid foundation, the negative and societal consequences of these policies are plentiful. These define 1) who belongs in a scientific career tract, 2) the types of agencies where science can be performed, and 3) what type of science can be conducted. This leads to 1) lack of background and thought diversity in the scientific workforce, 2) institutional hegemony and monopolization of resources for scientific activities, and 3) restricting the space of questions that can be asked and approaches that can be pursued, particularly if they conflict with past strategies or established body of knowledge. In essence, these represent barriers to scientific dissemination, and influx of innovative individuals, concepts, and approaches.
THE SOCIAL PROBLEM IN SCIENCE
As discussed in Oh et al. (2015) and Carli et al. (2016), the scientific field as a whole has marked discrimination against minorities and women. This is directly linked to the fact that the scientific establishment was 1) created by white men, 2) which took place at Institutions managed by white men, 3) who studied matters relevant to them. The policies put in place were never meant to accommodate anything different. And that has not changed. Furthermore, scientific education was historically a privilege of the upper classes, which also held the political and military power. Restricting the dissemination of knowledge that could result in the empowerment of lower classes was therefore desirable. And hence, the privatization of scientific activities and restricted dissemination took hold. Times changed meanwhile and the democratization of political life and dissemination of information became a norm of conduct. Institutions change slowly however. And the scientific establishment has been particularly resistant to change. While scientific dissemination is said to be a priority, and the scientific method is addressed in schools, only the students that perform the best, in the best schools, in standardized tests, are given the opportunity to pursue science as a scientific career. The underlying explicit or implicit implication is that average students are not capable of becoming scientists. This is in direct opposition to the known fact that some of the most revolutionary scientists in history were just average students, such as Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin. They were not great students, they were simply creative. And creativity often manifests itself in poor school performance because creative students can become bored and disengaged with topics that do not interest them, and that merely regurgitate established knowledge. Poor school performance is not a predictor of scientific ability. Interest and motivation to pursue solutions to problems is likely the best predictor of scientific aptitude. Compounding on this is the problem that minorities and women may be very motivated in pursuing solutions to problems, just different problems than the ones that the current scientific establishment considers important. This does not mean they are less important, it just means, they are less important to those making those decisions, which will also determine the next generation of important problems to continue to pursue. The lack of diversity in background and thought perpetuates itself. This is the first problem: who is and will continue to be allowed to do science.
This first problem merges into the second, which is the Institutions performing science. Because only the best students gain access to reputable Institutions, which are already part of the scientific establishment and “private club”, these Institutions are the ones that continue to propose the science that should be done. Of course, not only are these Institutions the ones proposing the science, they are also the ones who decide which science is funded, since the scientific review process is performed by peers. And so, an Institutional “brotherhood” emerges, and is openly acknowledged, scored, and factored into any proposal for funding. But is there evidence that the science performed at Ivy leagues is better than at other Institutions? No. There is evidence for more expensive science being performed at those Institutions, but transformative science often takes place at resource limited Institutions, despite that. One can wonder whether that happens because resource limited Institutions cannot compete with more reputable Institutions when proposing incremental knowledge and low-risk ideas that more reputable Institutions are perceived as being more competent to pursue. Because the reputable Institutions continually receive higher funding, they continue to be perceived as more competent, based largely on that self-created and maintained metric.
The third problem, what type of science is funded, is a direct result of the prior factors. Science being proposed that is too disruptive or conflictive with the current body of knowledge or approaches is inherently undesirable because it is detrimental to those in the scientific establishment whose careers and activities depend on the continuation of those paradigms. This type of science is deemed “high-risk”, “exploratory”, and “open-ended”. When did these adjectives become detrimental to the scientific endeavor? Shouldn’t all scientific pursuits be high-risk, and exploratory, and open-ended? Instead, what they represent is a threat to the scientific establishment, and those currently funded by it. So, in essence, these 3 pinnacles, 1) the who, 2) the where, and 3) the what, function as gatekeepers of the scientific establishment, and social structures that reinforce each other, preventing transformative change from occurring. Of notice, this takes place without any explicit policy that supports any of these directives. They represent the scientific culture, which is maintained by all who participate in it. Changing these social structures and their impact in the scientific establishment and society at large will require conscious collective effort to enforce change.
While the problem at hand is complex, the solution may not have to be. The first and second problem which are who gets to do science and where, can be addressed by simply anonymizing scientific proposals. The current grant system is single blinded, meaning that the identity of the reviewers is unknown to the applicants. This is beneficial to allow an open review and protect the reviewers from retaliation, but it also opens the door to individual and institutional discrimination by the reviewers that is not scientifically based because they know the identities of the applicants and are protected from retaliation by that same anonymity. However, if the system were double-blind, they would be left with having to judge the science, and nothing but the science.
This system has been adopted by a few foundations, including The Gates Foundation, and high-risk proposals at the governmental level, by the Department of Defense. NIH and NSF, the major agencies providing government science funding to institutions claim that they are interested in solid science with high feasibility prospects and productivity outcomes, and to judge that the reviewers need to know who and where the individuals are. But if that is truly the reason for this system, then why not judge feasibility after the proposals receive a scientific score? That is the way The Gates Foundation operates. Once a proposal receives a fundable score, officials from the foundation will visit the applicant and verify whether the conditions to undertake the proposed work are in place. I do not know of a single case where that was not verified. If the scientific establishment is interested in the best science, as it should, then there is no real barrier to implementing this process. Through a double-blind review process, which should extend to the publication setting as well, the best science should be the one being funded and published.
The third problem of what type of science is funded is more difficult to solve, but a double-blind system will resolve it, given enough time. Once the individual and institutional diversity increase in the number of funded proposals, so will in the number of reviewers. This diversity of thought will generate reviewers that are more open-minded to transformative science and that do not have to protect the current scientific dogma. So, a larger percentage of high-risk, exploratory, and open-ended science will begin to receive funding, creating an influx of transformative science into the mix. Change may take some time, but in this scenario, as the makeup of the scientific establishment would change to reflect that of the current times, so would other policies that relate to scientific communication with non-professional scientists, and their open and active participation in scientific activities. For the sake of continued progress in the future generations, it is imperative that it becomes clear that science is for all. You do not have to be the best student in the class, you do not have to be a man, you do not have to be white, you do not have to agree with what others think. All you have to be is someone with a problem to solve and an idea to fix it.