You Ought to Have a Look: On Fixing Science

You Ought to Have a Look is a regular feature from the Center for the Study of Science. While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic. Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

This week we focus on an in-depth article in Slate authored by Sam Apple that profiles John Arnold, “one of the least known billionaires in the U.S.” Turns out Mr. Arnold is very interested in “fixing” science. His foundation, the Arnold Foundation, has provided a good deal of funding to various research efforts across the country and across disciplines aimed at investigating how the scientific incentive structure results in biased (aka “bad”) science. His foundation has supported several high-profile science-finding replication efforts, such as those being run by Stanford’s John Ioannidis (whose work we are very fond of) and University of Virginia’s Brian Nosek who runs a venture called the “Reproducibility Project” (and who pioneered the badge system of rewards for open science that we previously discussed). The Arnold Foundation has also provided support for the re-examining of nutritional science, an effort lead by Gary Taubes (also a favorite of ours), as well as investigations into the scientific review process behind the U.S. government’s dietary guidelines, spearheaded by journalist Nina Teicholz.

Apple writes that:

In my conversations with Arnold and his grantees, the word incentives seems to come up more than any other. The problem, they claim, isn’t that scientists don’t want to do the right thing. On the contrary, Arnold says he believes that most researchers go into their work with the best of intentions, only to be led astray by a system that rewards the wrong behaviors.

This is something that we, too, repeatedly highlight at the Center for the Study of Science and investigating its impact is what we are built around.

Apple continues:

[S]cience, itself, through its systems of publication, funding, and advancement—had become biased toward generating a certain kind of finding: novel, attention grabbing, but ultimately unreliable…

“As a general rule, the incentives related to quantitative research are very different in the social sciences and in financial practice,” says James Owen Weatherall, author of The Physics of Wall Street. “In the sciences, one is mostly incentivized to publish journal articles, and especially to publish the sorts of attention-grabbing and controversial articles that get widely cited and picked up by the popular media. The articles have to appear methodologically sound, but this is generally a lower standard than being completely convincing. In finance, meanwhile, at least when one is trading with one’s own money, there are strong incentives to work to that stronger standard. One is literally betting on one’s research.”

What Should Republicans Do?

Having taken both houses of Congress, Republicans are eager to make changes. Here are some guidelines they should follow: 1. Learn from history. At least since the Clinton administration, this country has suffered from a consistent pattern: First, one party takes the White House and Congress. Thrilled with the taste of power, they overreach, provoking a backlash. This allows the other party to soon take control of at least one house of Congress, leading to gridlock for the next several years. Republicans can avoid this scenario. Instead of immediately trying to pass legislation that will please certain of their constituents, Republicans should propose changes that will build strategic alliances with a wide range of groups. That may mean an incremental approach to change, but each increment should be designed to make the next increment more—not less—politically feasible. 2. Focus on fiscal issues. Part of the historic pattern is that Democrats win on social issues while Republicans win on fiscal issues. Whichever party is in power usually shoots itself in the foot by giving the other party ammunition on its winning issues. For example, Democrats’ obsession with government-run health insurance turned a social issue—poor people’s access to health care—into a fiscal issue. Republicans’ obsessions with abortion and gay rights give Democrats tools to bring them down. Since tax and fiscal issues are what Republicans win on, they should stick to those issues. That means no introducing bills to limit third-trimester abortions, no proposals for constitutional amendments to declare that marriage is between a man and a woman, and no efforts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling. Any of those efforts would give fiscal liberals the openings they need to retake at least one house of Congress in 2018 (if not 2016), thus restoring gridlock. 3. Fix incentives, not outcomes. Nearly all of the problems with the federal government are due to poor incentives. It is incentives that determine what agencies do and whether they will be efficient doing it. In the long run, if the incentives are right, everything else will take care of itself (including a reduction in the size of government). Unfortunately, members of Congress almost never think about incentives when they pass legislation—or when they do, they think about them the wrong way, as in “How can I create an incentive to produce the outcome I want?” Instead of worrying about outcomes, Congress should create a level playing field, with a minimal amount of regulation and subsidies.

Random Assignment

The Brookings Institution released a new study today on charter schooling—assessing how well it’s working and what the federal government should do about it. One of the recommendations reads as follows:

Student participation in lotteries for admissions to any public [charter] school and the results of such lotteries should be a required student data element in state or district longitudinal data systems supported with federal funds.

Senate Hearing Wednesday: The ‘School to Prison Pipeline’

I’ll be testifying before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights this Wednesday, at 2:00pm. The hearing will investigate the “school to prison pipeline”—the pattern of flawed disciplinary policies and practices, including “zero tolerance,” that has been widely faulted for unnecessarily pushing students out of school and into the juvenile justice system.


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