Commentary

The Unintended Consequences of the American Way of Science

National Public Radio published a story last week on biomedical scientists “cutting corners” in pursuit of funding. It was about the search for a cure for that horrendous ailment, Amyotrophyic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Repeatedly, drugs that seemed to work in animal tests didn’t pan out when tried on humans.

NPR spoke with Story Landis, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, who said that “part of the explanation relates to a growing issue in biomedical science: the mad scramble for scarce research dollars.” So, she said, “scientists are tempted to oversell weak results.”

She went on: “Getting a grant requires that you have an exciting story to tell, that you have preliminary data, and you have published. In the rush, to be perfectly honest, to get a wonderful story out on the street in a journal, and preferably with some publicity to match, scientists can cut corners.”

There’s strong evidence that the prevalence of bad science and ‘cut corners’ is increasing.

What’s happening is that scientists aren’t replicating the work of others. That’s viewed as a waste of time because it’s not flashy enough to attract money. And given that oodles of funding are required to publish the reams of papers required to get promotion and tenure at a tier-one research university, doing that kind of work is likely to endanger your career.

“Scarce research dollars” aren’t the problem. The number of practitioners of a given science is directly proportional to how much money floods the field. There’s no scientist struggling for promotion in high-end academia who thinks he or she is adequately funded. Dollars, by their very nature, are scarce. That’s why money has value.

The problem, instead, is the “American model” for professional advancement, which can be stated simply: “get funded, get published or get out.”

Take my specialty, climate change. Back when I started at this, in 1976, no one wanted to be a climatologist, in no small part because there was very little funding to go around. But as global warming became a political cause, the dollar flow increased from a few million a year to a current federal outlay of $2.3 billion.

And so everyone doing anything that could be vaguely related to climate change got into the act. On came the ecologists, the plant physiologists and even the psychologists.

You can see the results in the “national assessments” of the effects of climate change that are put out every few years by the federal climate bureaucracy. The 2014 version has been heavily cited by President Obama in support of his global warming policies, despite the fact that it simply ignores the growing disparity between the government’s climate models and reality.

According to Ross McKitrick, from Canada’s University of Guelph (and a Cato Institute scholar), we are now approaching two decades without any warming.

As a wonderful example of how money dilutes science, the 2014 report also says that global warming will increase the prevalence of mental illness in our cities. Are people really saner in the winters of Washington than they are in sunny Miami? Does moving there from New York threaten your stability?

Rest assured that if this research had shown no link between climate and mental health, there would also be no renewal of the associated research grant. Negative results get neither published nor funded.

There’s strong evidence that the prevalence of bad science and “cut corners” is increasing.

University of Montreal’s Daniele Fanelli examined over 5,000 published papers from around the world, and over many disciplines. His stunning 2012 finding was titled “Negative Results are Disappearing from Most Disciplines and Countries,” and it documented a systematic increase in the frequency of “positive” findings being published.

All the incentives push science in the direction of positive results, and there is every disincentive (such as loss of funding and therefore your job) to not report when your research hypothesis isn’t borne out by the data.

Fanelli also found, in separate work, that the addition of a single American author to a multi-authored international paper greatly raises the probability that it will report a positive result.

All of this is tragic. In biomedicine, people suffer and die because of falsely promised cures. In climate change, we get poisonous policies emanating from absurd results generated by climate models that can’t even get the last two decades right.

And around the world, the quality of science is in decline as nations increasingly adopt our model for professional advancement.

Patrick J. Michaels is director of the Center for the Study of Science at the Cato Institute.