Is science in crisis?

Is science is in crisis?

Humanity has a rough century ahead. The daily news trumpets concerns over climate change, extreme weather and droughts, new infectious diseases, a faltering green revolution and continued environmental degradation. Each of these problems may contribute to social and political instability. The 21st century will test our species, and some challenges will threaten our way of life and even our survival. At such a time it is important to recall that the remarkable success of mankind during the past two centuries is directly related to the scientific revolution. Science and technology have repeatedly provided new means to grow more food and generate more energy and thus avoid a Malthusian crisis despite an exponentially growing population. Science has never been more important to humanity.

The same sources that bring news of potential calamities also report problems with scientific integrity and reproducibility. The question "Is science broken?" has been repeatedly raised. We answer emphatically that science is not broken. Spacecraft are exploring Ceres and Pluto, the Higgs boson was found, numerous genomes are decoded, AIDS is now a treatable disease, and new miracle drugs are on the horizon. Nevertheless, not all is well with the scientific enterprise. Public funding for science has been stagnant for many years, and this has taken a serious toll on the scientific culture and the rate of scientific progress. Science is under attack by forces waging war on some of its major successes. Vaccines, climate science, genetic engineering, evolutionary theory and even the moon landings have each been questioned. Increasing regulations hobble scientific research. Many scientists are poor communicators, increasing the challenge of fending off anti-science forces and convincing the public that more support is needed.

Compounding the situation are internal problems rooted in the culture of science. Increased competition for funding has led science to drift from an emphasis on rigorous reproducible research to flashy high impact studies, which in some cases have been subsequently found to be erroneous or exaggerated. This has led to a perceived reproducibility crisis, in which the credibility of scientific findings is increasingly questioned. Recent years have witnessed a spike of retracted publications, often due to misconduct, although retracted publications are only a tiny fraction of the scientific literature. In combination these trends could lead to a loss of public confidence in science, creating a vicious cycle that could undermine the entire enterprise. If this happens, society will lose its most powerful tool to navigate the crises that lie ahead.

It is time for a renewed societal investment in science. This will be essential to ensure timely breakthroughs, develop the next generation of scientists and alleviate the problems created by hypercompetition among scientists over inadequate funding. But this alone will not be enough. For its part, science must also address its internal problems. A first step would be to re-emphasize the values of rigor, integrity and reproducibility that have made science so successful throughout history. Today much of the scientific establishment relies on a reward system that cares more about who scientists have trained with and where they have published, rather than about the quality and reproducibility of their work. Young scientists are being taught that to be successful they must publish in high impact journals, and this emphasis on publication volume and venue can create overwhelming pressures to compromise quality. Scientific training needs to evolve to produce more careful thinkers and experimentalists as well as scientists who can contribute to all segments of society including law, business, government, communication and education.

Science has delivered and continues to deliver great benefits to society. In fact, until now, science has been so successful that it has never needed reformation. However, the combination of external and internal problems is creating a perfect storm that can no longer be ignored. There are signs that the scientific establishment is increasingly acknowledging and moving to address these threats. The White House and the National Institutes of Health have advocated new initiatives to improve the reliability of biomedical research. However, real change must also come from within the scientific community. Reform of the reward system of science will be required to incentivize rigorous and reliable work instead of splashy publications that fail to stand the test of time. The current crisis in science provides an opportunity to for reforms that will ensure that science continues to provide humanity with the new insights, tools and alternatives it must have to face a challenging future.

Dr. Arturo Casadevall (acasade1@jhu.edu) is professor and chair of the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunologyat the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; his editorial opinion is made in a personal capacity and is independent of his affiliation with Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Ferric C. Fang (fcfang@uw.edu) is a professor of laboratory medicine, microbiology, medicine and pathobiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

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