Evolving scientific culture

The technological progress is continuously expanding our ability to measure and study new phenomena at ever higher sensitivity and accuracy. This progress is empowering research and sometimes drives new discoveries. Such progress comes at high price: expensive equipment and ever increasing dependence on resources. Resource-driven investigations are becoming common enough to stimulate the appearance of specialized types of articles in many journals. The-resource driven research contrasts with idea-driven research, e.g., the Luria–Delbrück experiment, general relativity, and Feynman diagrams. Most research is driven both by ideas and by resources, and the contrast between the extremes (principal eigen-components) is useful mostly for emphasising the evolving shift in their relative contributions.

Both idea-driven and resource-driven research can be very productive. However, they demand different sets of skills and create very different cultures. Privileged background and political skills are far more important for resource-driven research than for idea-driven research. Conversely, resource-driven research is less conducive to a meritocratic culture. Furthermore, priority is generally harder to assign objectively for resource-driven research and stimulates political attributions; see this excellent post and discussion by Arjun Raj. Resource-driven research usually involves many repetitive steps that are suboptimal learning experience for graduate students. On the other hand, resource-driven research is fairly “safe” in terms of producing visible and popular publications, soliciting future funding, and building careers.

The shift towards higher resources-dependence is sometimes demanded even by the most creative, idea-driven research; some brilliant and original ideas are impotent unless combined with empirical data whose collection requires resources. I consider this use of resources essential. Beyond this essential use of resources, much resource-driven research seems to be motivated by the relative safety of this approach for those with power and resources. Some of the increasing reliance on resources seems to be autocatalytic; as the scientific culture evolves, some scientists seem to become more accustomed to the inequality. As one prominent PI put it: “The world is unfair. That is nothing new and nothing to worry about”. I find this attitude defeatist. While perfect fairness is hard to define and perhaps impossible to achieve practically, this should not be a reason for resignation and lack of motivation to improve the system as much as we can.

2 thoughts on “Evolving scientific culture

  1. Well said. I think that it’s okay if resource-driven science even takes up the majority of resources… but it’s important that we do reserve at least some space for creative ideas that just might change the world. The good news is that it doesn’t take a lot of resources to fund non-resource intensive science… 🙂

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  2. Quite true Nikolai. The change in scientific culture has been along many fronts (risk,creativity, openness, diversity, cooperative) and has proven quite detrimental in many ways and has multiple causal factors.

    I’ll start with a “values” statement. Scientific research is best left idiosyncratic as it relies upon creative mingling of ideas and is hence inherently unpredictable and risky. Govt. funding priorities (towards genomics/biotech) and increasing standardization of techniques (sequencing, mass-spec etc) have been a major driving factor in the shift towards resource-dependent research. These have resulted in a narrowing of the scientific gene pool (so to speak) and a concomitant reduction in “idea-driven science”. And not only within our relatively small world of biophysics- think of the withering away of large chunks of biology such as organismal, evolutionary, ecological biology.

    Those labs that figured out this reality early on and/or had privileged access to the NSF/NIH programs used to implement this funding shift, primarily larger labs with well-known PI’s, were the big winners-as they were able to both do expensive resource-dependent research themselves and in gatekeeping what got published in prestigious journals. Such policies then trickled-down and every scientist was incentivized to take on more “resource” driven projects (as these had lower risks in two ways: you’d always find something interesting in large datasets, and it was likelier to get published) and shed their idiosyncratic idea-driven projects. Of course, I’m not arguing that this was completely deterministic- many ppl continued to use their grants to do their more idiosyncratic/risky projects. Say one thing and do another 🙂 Nor am I saying that there is a necessary dichotomy between the two- as you point out they are intertwined. However, the overalll direction is clear- the narrowing of scientific horizons, increased herding of scientists on worn tracks, and increasing funneling of basic science research funds into less risky/creative research that can be commercialized.

    The last point about using universities transforming themselves into IP/licensing offices for industry (with its crude secrecy destroying the fundamental value of openness in science) might seem peripheral to this discussion, but I think the shift in funding priorities was driven from the top-down, and is by no means an organic shift in “scientific culture”. Physics experienced many similar distortions during its heyday of cold-war era funding. In physics it was military priorities skewing research while in biology its the biomedical/biotech under the banner of IP and “translational research”. There is a huge amount of literature on this complicated topicso I’ll just give a few pointers.

    google the following papers:

    1.Kleinman, Daniel Lee. 2010. “The Commercialization of Academic Culture and the Future of the University.” In
    Hans Radder (ed.), The Commodification of Academic Research: Analyses Assessments, Alternatives. University of Pittsburgh Press.

    Mirowski, Philip, and Robert Van Horn. “The Contract Research Organization and the Commercialization of Scientific Research.” Social Studies of Science 35, no. 4: 503–548. doi:10.1177/0306312705052103.

    for a counter view, see
    3. “Changing the academic culture: Valuing patents and commercialization toward tenure and career advancement”

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