work incentives

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.”

Why All the Labor Force Dropouts?

The distinguished Stanford University economist Robert Hall, co-architect of the famed Hall-Rabushka flat tax, once described himself to me as a [Bill] Clinton Democrat. Bob Hall wrote one of the most serious studies trying to figure out why the U.S. economy has remained so weak for so long. He concluded that much of the explanation lies in the ways in which recent marginal tax and transfer incentives discourage work.

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