Grjótagjá Rift, Iceland. Photo: Brian Gratwicke via Flickr

Grjótagjá Rift, Iceland. Photo: Brian Gratwicke via Flickr

For some years now it seems that not a day goes by without a report of a failed or unsatisfactory replication of scientific findings or news of a scandal in scientific practice in some part of the world. This worrying state of affairs has not gone unnoticed, neither by the scientific community at large nor by other concerned publics, not least funders of research. A widely held view is that the peer review process – the basis of the quality assurance system in science – must be strengthened in order to recover and preserve the quality and integrity of science. Many also see the use of science metrics (particularly the notorious journal impact factors and the ‘H-indexes’ of researchers) to evaluate and reward individuals and institutions as creating a perverse system of incentives in the scientific profession.

Whatever the causes, one important consequence of the steady stream of failures and deceptions in science is that the fitness of science to inform policy making has been called into question, in all policy domains, from nutrition to health, from financial stability to trade.

Do these observations signal a crisis in science? I believe we may well be on the brink of one, as do my co-authors on a joint volume recently published by the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University, entitled Science on the Verge [*].We argue that it is time to wake up to the severity of the malaise affecting science, try to understand its extent, assess its implications, penetrate into its root causes and propose a constructive way forward.

Our diagnosis builds on the insights of some of the progenitors of the modern field of the history and philosophy of science. While the official narrative might see the present predicament as the compounded effect of inadequate statistical training, poor methodology and perverse incentives, we consider these factors insufficient to account for the scale of the phenomenon we are witnessing. We draw on insights from Derek de Solla Price – the father of scientometrics –and from Jerome R. Ravetz, one of the co-authors of the volume, to understand the crisis as the consequence of the very success and growth of science. It is part and parcel of the transition in the post-war period from ‘little’ science to ‘big’, industrialized science – involving big budgets, staff complements and infrastructure, and bringing with it a profound change in the social fabric and ethos of science.

The crisis we are facing is therefore not just methodological and organizational in nature, but also ethical and metaphysical. The implication is that even well-intended and necessary remedies proposed from within the scientific enterprise – whether from brave individual scientists or from institutions concerned with the funding and the operation of science[1]  – may be inadequate to the challenge.

We believe that one of the preconditions of any serious attempt to deal with the crisis will without a doubt be a willingness to ‘unlearn’ what we think we know – above all, we will have to let go of our cherished, long-held vision of science as a disinterested practice that ‘speaks truth to power’, and likewise the Cartesian myth that any problem, in the realm of nature or society, can eventually be solved through the accumulation of hard facts. It is an absurdity of our times that we still imagine that scientific problems all have an ultimate solution that can be expressed to the third decimal digit – if only enough resources were invested in studying them. Such an archaic and but persistent view of ‘Science’ tends to go hand-in-hand with dogmatism and the false belief in objective solutions to wicked problems, suppressing the doubt and uncertainty which should rather be abiding principles of the research endeavour. In particular, in the field of science advice to policy, the instinct to quantify complex phenomena, natural and social, should be replaced by a culture of the responsible use of numbers, involving what might be called an ‘audit’ process that takes into account and respects the uncertainty inherent in the making of quantified scientific findings.

What’s more, the increasingly diverse cast of external contributors to the world of science – from ecological activists to amateur galaxy-watchers and garage scientists – now has the occasion and the means to question and revolutionize the rules, assumptions and procedures of the scientific establishment, thanks to new information and communication technologies which may prove to be to Science what the printing press was to the Church. Scientists themselves will have an important role to play in restoring trust in science: we will need to open ourselves up to the demands and values of civil society, avoid falling into the trap of sterile science wars, and to cultivate the ‘extended peer communities’ which we believe are the best hope to restore quality and public trust in science. Only by engaging with all those parties affected by an issue, with their often conflicting values and knowledge, will science be able to address effectively and equitably the interconnected scientific and societal challenges of our era.

[*] Benessia, A., Funtowicz, S., Giampietro, M., Guimarães Pereira, A., Ravetz, J., Saltelli, A., Strand, R., van der Sluijs, J., 2015, The Rightful Place of Science: Science on the Verge (Arizona State University: The Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes).

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[1] Such as the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment:

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