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Scientists Weigh in on the Biggest Challenges Facing Science Today

“If you could change one thing about how science works today, what would it be and why?” This basic question was at the heart of a recent survey conducted by journalists at intended to gain insight into the issues contributing to growing concern among scientists about the current state of academic science.  They received answers from 270 scientists at all levels representing a variety of disciplines (though the majority were in biomedical fields) who in large part felt that current pressures and incentives for career survival are leading to bad science. The survey identified a number of major problems facing academic science. Here we summarize their conclusions, focusing on the most commonly cited issues.

Money Problem

All research requires financial support, and the struggle to find and maintain funding has long been the central obstacle most scientists face in their careers. Yet, recent trends have only made funding more difficult to obtain.  The NIH budget plateaued in the early 2000’s, and a combination of budget cuts, sequestration and inflationary losses since has resulted in a 22% decrease in the capacity of the NIH to fund research over the period from 2003-2015.  The direct result of this funding shortage has been a dramatic increase in competition for grants.  While 30% of NIH proposals were funded in 2000, currently less than 18% are successful, and survey respondents felt this intense competition for grants is having a profound effect on the science being conducted.  Many argued that the pressure to publish and secure grant funding pushes scientists towards safer, more predictable studies and further from the type of long-term, riskier studies that tend to produce truly novel and important findings. 

As Gary Bennett, a neuroscientist at Duke University, put it, funding “affects what we study, what we publish, the risks we (frequently don’t) take.”  A number of respondents also pointed out that when federal and university funding is scarce, researchers tend to turn more to private industry for funding, creating ample opportunity for conflicts of interest.  Marion Nestle, a food politics professor at New York University said, “With funding from NIH, USDA and foundations so limited...researchers feel obligated, or willingly seek, food industry support. The frequent result? Conflicts of interest.”

Misguided Incentives

Many survey respondents argued that perverse incentives seriously undermine the quality of scientific research. The current state of both ultra-competitive funding and job markets has scientists under tremendous pressure to publish frequently and in high profile journals that require flashy results.  This pressure can lead to subtle biases that can influence all phases of a research project from study design to data analysis and interpretation.  A number of respondents felt that the current incentive structure rewards those who over-hype their findings and chase statistical significance. 

One such scientist, Joseph Hilgard, a postdoc at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, commented, “The current system has done too much to reward results.  This causes a conflict of interest: The scientist is in charge of evaluating the hypothesis, but the scientist also desperately wants the hypothesis to be true.”  The research of meta-analysts supports these feelings.  A 2005 study published in JAMA found that as much as 30% of the most influential and highly cited studies later turned out to be wrong or exaggerated1.  Additionally, a recent study in the Lancet argued that 85% of total global research funding is wasted on poorly designed and redundant studies2.

 Publishing System Broken

Another problem area frequently cited by survey respondents was the peer review and publishing system.  Many expressed the view that the current peer review process fails to prevent low-quality research from being published.  At the same time, a number of respondents took issue with the fact that for the majority of journals, editors and reviewers know the identity of authors while referees remain anonymous. This allows biases against individuals or institutions to come into play.  Finally, many complained that far too many journals keep publications behind restrictive and costly paywalls, arguing that important findings should be free for all to access. Ben Goldacre, a British epidemiologist known for his reporting on bad science, summed up the general consensus on the current publishing model, “We need to recognize academic journals for what they are: shop windows for incomplete descriptions of research, that make semi-arbitrary editorial [judgements] about what to publish and often have harmful policies that restrict access to important post-publication critical appraisal of published research.”

Poor Science Communication

Another topic repeatedly listed as a top concern among survey respondents was effective science communication.  Many felt that both scientists and journalists were doing a poor job communicating important scientific ideas and findings with the public.  They complained about the influence of uninformed and misguided celebrities, and the tendency of science journalists and scientists themselves to exaggerate findings.  Daniel Molden, an associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University described how the current state of science communication undermines scientists’ efforts. “You have this toxic dynamic where journalists and scientists enable each other in a way that massively inflates the certainty and generality of how scientific findings are communicated and the promises that are made to the public. When these findings prove to be less certain and the promises are not realized, this just further erodes the respect that scientists get and further fuels scientists desire for appreciation.”

Can Science Be Saved?

In the end, the authors of the study conclude that despite all the all the negativity, science is not doomed.  After all, the system more or less still works.  Great and important discoveries are still being made, and efforts to improve the way we do science and even address some of these issues are underway.  They offer three main areas to focus on to make the greatest impact.

1.      Address the financial problem and find a way to create incentives for researchers to undertake longer, less predictable studies that offer the opportunity for bigger discoveries.

2.      Address the incentive structure within the system by finding ways to reward failure and negative results from rigorous, well-designed studies.

3.      Increase transparency. Methods and findings need to be made available in greater detail and more easily accessible to anyone who may want to analyze or replicate their findings.

To read more about their impressions and conclusions from the survey, see the original article here:

In addition you can view a list of the Vox journalists’ favorite survey responses here:


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