Let me initiate a debate with a controversy about the role of Science and scientists in modern societies.

The evaluation of Science, and its funding system, are nowadays very dependant on the assumption that good science should be profitable. Scientific research is beneficial for society, because it provides two valuable outputs:
- New technologies (output of applied research).
- Better education level (output of basic research).

The modern vision of Science considers only the first output, and places more and more the fundings for applied research in private hands (through grant systems controlled by major companies). Several reports show that this method is counter-productive, and even sometimes dangerous as in the case of pharmaceutical research, for instance read about:
- ADHD drug biased reports (http://www.alternet.org/drugreporter/20594/).
- The problems of conflict of interest (http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2004/0404.brownlee.html).

Why not trying to shift our concepts of how Science should be profitable? What will our societies want from Science: money or Progress?
It seems to me that scientists are being confused with engineers, commercials and/or journalists; and that this situation is becoming the norm rather than the exception.

A more productive system could target directly the desired outputs of science, by supporting the transformation from applied science to new products (creating new companies instead of letting established companies handling and controlling the applications with the grant system); and by encourageing a high level of teaching in universities (evaluating professors and the depth of their knowledge and their communication abilities rather than on the impact factor of their latest paper). This system has yet to be developped, and certainly will have its own traps; but waiting with fingers crossed until we crash on the wall does not seem a winning strategy...

Any opinions?

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Enter the possibility of having these new companies being more controlled by scientists themselves!

But for this to happen, it might also be necessary for the scientists to receive a basic formation in business and marketing, preferably during their first years at the University when the degree course includes extra-curricular activities and the focus is not yet put on research.
As any good business class would include lessons in effective communication and leadership, this would have the additional advantage of empowering the scientists in their dealings with the politicians, the industries, the medias and the general public.

We can already now see scientists which achievements recognized at the Nobel Prize level secure a large following in the public and receive attention from both medias and politicians. Unfortunately, having already done their research their later work is usually focused on popular education. But let us imagine what younger scientists not suffering from shyness and with the ability to secure funding by themselves could accomplish.

I can see such solutions and collaboration already being worked out in the private space exploration sector between scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs. Also, why should business angels focus only on IT (or biogenetical) startups? But are the scientists in other fields really pushing forward their new ideas in new directions to secure new sources of funding?

Certainly, scientists should never be confused with engineers, commercial types or journalists, but having the necessary communications skills, by working more openly with them as equal partners, they would in fact acquire a measure of autonomy and might redefine themselves as the real brains behind new products, at least as much as engineers.

They could also have more to say about the long term benefits of science and address the question of quick profitability vs. progress by being more active participants in the debate involving tax-payers and policy-makers.

So in addition to changing the system, the scientists might have to change themselves, acquiring the necessary skills to put forward their ideas and to implement some of those ideas as new products with the help of business angels, young entrepreneurs and semi-private organizations.
I agree that market and hunt for profit can be dangerous. But market also provides some sort of easy reality check. Bad science will not make any $$ and will collapse, good science that bring fruitful results will survive - kinda Darwinian natural selection process :) And this strategy is quite successfull in making Progress - as you can see it produced such advanced beings as humans on this planet :)
Without this, how will you decide where money & grants should go, how to evaluate if that particular research is really deserving? Evaluation process that depend only on expert's opinion easily become corrupted, it turns into politics and stops functioning after a while..
---To Philippe---

"being more active participants in the debate involving tax-payers and policy-makers."

I agree with this. But we will face a problem: those who are willing to talk are young scientist (those who want the system to be improved), not the big shots who have finished their career (as you mentionned yourself, what is the interest of a Nobel prize in changing funding policies?). However, policy-makers will only pay attention to the big shots...
A good scientific system should involve much more exchanges and communications, and indeed this means changing the culture of scientists: young scientist shall be more pro-active regarding the policies, their elders should be more encourageing regarding scientific divulgation (eg.g most scientific institution do not reward their scientists for academic teachings and/or publication of general public books). There is indeed a communication problem to be solved. Maybe a change to the culture of young scientists could be introduced with the new communication technologies (similar to the present discussion group)? Young scientists are using the new media technologies much more than their elders, and can thereby communicate directly with the public - once the tax-payers are well-informed of the problems, the policy makers might change their mind?

"the scientists might have to change themselves"

I agree 100%. In the industry, engineers or commercial have access to professional formations (in average 2 weeks per year, more in some companies) dealing with management and econom. In the world of Science, participating in such trainings is often seen as some kind of heresy! The scientists are not supported to participate in these trainings (no money, no time, and no reward). In other words, in this system the scientist is supposed to receive orders from the industry, and never to take initiatives. If we want applied researches of quality, this kind of formation is necessary. Why would it be wrong to use grant money for training? To give a provocative example, is this wrong if a scientist works part-time to prepare his MBA? This is almost taboo in some institutions...

---To Alexandra---

"Bad science will not make any $$"

This is a reductionist view of Science (this means that your opinion is often true, but is an over-generalization). Profits are not evil, sure, but they are only a consequence of good science, not its cause! Basic research has a long term (10-15 years) return, in other words, in a society where evaluation is short-termed (2-5 years generally) fundings for basic research are NEVER competitive. In other words, for applied research, bad science does not lead to $$; but in the case of basic research, neither bad nor good science would lead to $$. Basic research is NOT productive in the short term, and the industry can generally fund projects only on a short term basis. What future would be better for our children? How would be the world if basic science disappeared?

Selection based only on profits is Darwinian indeed, but this selection principle is corruption-prone, and the tendancy is that corrupted scientists will survive! Let me detail this point: Science is associated with a myth that scientists are "purely motivated" by a quest for "Truth" and "Knowledge". Unfortunately, scientists are human beings, they also want to live their life, they are motivated by fanilial stability, salary, and social recognition. I have seen motivated scientists willing to quit, only because they were disgusted by the level of institutional corruption and administrative waste of time and money (they were good and productive scientists, but they did not fit with the system). Sadly, the most corrupted scientists never complain about corruption: they benefit from it. If a system makes corrupted scientist happy and demotivates motivated good scientists, then it is a selection of the most corrupted. This could be improved either by changing the scientists (so that good scientists are motivated to stay) - this is what Philippe suggested; or by changing the system (so that corrupted scientists are motivated to leave) - this is what I suggest.

Money is whatever necessary for Science, and applied science is a valuable direction of research. The problem of money is two-fold:
1) Funding control. If the fundings are controlled by private companies, then the research is not made for the public's interest (but instead for the company's interests). I gave two links in the introduction of this discussion, but they are like the trees hidding the forest (check google with the key words "science" and "corruption" to collect a few pearls). On the other hand, I totally agree with you, state-controlled funding in the hand of pseudo-experts nominated by politic leaders leads easily to another kind of corruption: Lysenkoism (the Bush administration showed a good example of modern Lysenkoism). Finally, I do agree with you, peer-to-peer evaluation can lead to another kind of corruption, where a few big shots control everything in science, including what the others are allowed to think and do. This is a sad reality, and anyone with some experience in science can tell that the peer-review system is far from being transparent and corruption-proof!
In my opinion, the last solution is nevertheless the "least worst", on the condition that peer evaluation are made more collegial and transparent. New systems could be designed, such as open peer-review systems (papers or grant proposals discussed openly on a semi-public forum). Despite the modern system of peer-review and private grants is very recent (since 1950 only), it is seen as a monolithic tradition, and people are afraid to change this "august" system. To cite John M. Cage: "I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I'm frightened of the old ones". Could science be more international, and more independant from lobbies? Yes, I belive this is feasible, and if this is the future we want for our children, then we should fight for it - or at least take the time to get our ideas out of our personal sandboxes. The means of communication have evolved, we should use them.

2) Scientific evaluation. Progress is made through three steps: basic research -> applied research -> development. Each of these steps require different methods of evaluation. The output of basic research is quality data. The output of applied research is quality data and profitable applications. The output of devlopment is prototypes and new technologies. In other words, each of these steps is supposed to be evaluated by different criterions. Unfortunately the reality is progressively getting away from the ideal: each steps tend to be evaluated with the same rule (= profit). The quality of scientific research is apparently not anymore a matter of concern, and evaluations are based on reductionist metrics (such as the impact factor). Scientific quality cannot be reduced to numbers! New evaluation methods exist and should be applied (e.g., if we want to use numbers, use the h-index, no the IF), but again nothing can replace transparency and communication.

I would like a serious effort to be made in the direction of transparency, and for the defense of quality in research. The first step is to discuss ideas, to bring new ideas and solutions and afterwards debate them - here on the internet, but also in our labs, and with our friends. I do care about Science, and I am certainly not the only one worried about the direction it is taking. There are hundreds of thousands of scientists in the world, imagine what we could all do if our ideas were put in common?

Please critic my limited opinion, I would be more than happy to read some reactions.
(To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing. - Elbert Hubbard)
I agree with your points and that existing system can and should be improved. Actually this process already started - we are moving now towards more transparency with projects like Plos One etc.. And thankfully to Internet everyone can be heard - you can publish your research in your blog or discuss it on any forum..

But publicity is not a ultimate solution and has its own pitfalls too.

First, there are "who-cares" and "lack-of-time" problems. Amount of science done grows exponentially, a lot of papers got published, and scientists just do not have time to read even those that are related to their field. Plos One has "comments" section for each article, but who uses this feature?
So even if evaluation made public, this public will not come & evaluate if they don't have an interest like money. Only interested persons will influence the decision, and this will lead again to what we want to escape.

Second, high amount of publicity when simultaneously good scientists, bad scientists, corrupted scientists, big shots, young scientists, crazy scientists, interested scientists will be allowed to discussion & evaluation, this can result in a mess rather than a good decision. Everyone has its own opinion, and again we will need some criteria to decide which opinion should matter. Voting is not always the best solution, it just shows what most people think, not what is correct.
Reading our exchange, I discovered a big flaw in my own arguments in that while scientists might improve their communications skills and put forward their arguments directly to the public, they will in fact compete with already highly skills communicators who have not the same degree of ethics nor the same goals.

In addition, as Alexandra says rightly, scientists' messages will be and already are drowned in an ocean of marketing pitches and bad science.

The fight should take place on a more favorable terrain or, following the example of a growing number of active and vocal skeptics groups, scientists should both put forward their ideas _and_ aggressively defend good science in general.

Who is going to take on the Lysenkoists and help educate the public if not the scientists themselves? Scientists have to defend and use their reputation as men and women of reason to promote good science. At the end, if bad science makes itself attractive to the public and the politicians and serves the interests of some religious groups, it becomes a duty for the scientists to make science attractive. It can be done.

A last point concerns public debate. I have been active in the Augustine Commission debate on Human Space Flight on Facebook and elsewhere. This offered the possibility for the public to share with experts ideas about the future orientation of space exploration. I think this type of effort should be encouraged in all fields of science, in addition to educating children about the fun and glory of science. Dr. Bernard Harris, the astronaut is doing a nice job, organizing space camps, visiting schools, etc., working with corporate sponsors, etc.
Like in the case of NASA, public debate is necessary in all fields of science to clean corruption. It is working also when we see more and more scientists taking over from bureaucrats.


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