The Perils of Industrialization

How the industrialization of academic science has ruined research, and what we can do about it.

By | August 1, 2007

<figcaption> Credit: © Zefa</figcaption>
Credit: © Zefa


Making Grants Go Further:
A New Paradigm for NIH Grants

Newton had it easy. He was financially independent, didn't have to worry about writing grants, and didn't know what a publication list was. For Darwin, science was a country gentleman's pastime, not a job that he needed to sustain himself.

The Industrial Revolution changed all this. For the first time in human history, it became possible to produce goods and services on a mass scale. Industrialization proved so successful that science also fell victim to it, and academic research now resembles a commercial operation.

That means that science is driven by customer demand, because society funds basic research only to satisfy well-defined interests - for example, the discovery of new therapies. To meet this demand, scientists must function as efficient machines that convert grant money into publications. Scientists therefore must give up academic freedom and work only on projects for which they can obtain grants.

What makes this situation worse is anonymous peer review, a system that I consider to be censorship. This system is kept alive by an unholy alliance between a narrow elite of "important professors" and influential journal editors who ensure that published results correspond to the current mainstream paradigms. Productivity is then evaluated by quantitative key performance indicators (KPIs) such as the number of papers and the impact factors of the journals in which they are published.

Quality has been replaced by quantity. Consequently, an exponentially growing number of mediocre publications are produced by a large army of scientists, but we have not grown exponentially wiser in the process. In this saturated market only the most competitive can survive. Indeed, some say that competition has now grown to such proportions that it is hindering the free exchange of ideas and promotes scientific fraud.

Perhaps paradoxically, industrialization might have saved us from this fate, by doing what it does best: streamlining processes to make them more efficient, which would allow scientists to do higher-quality work. Instead, these efforts have failed to deliver. If the current trend continues, the scientific establishment will collapse under its own weight, leaving behind only millions of irrelevant publications.

What should we do to prevent the triumph of industrialized mediocrity over creativity and innovation?

Free science from the KPIs: The short-sighted view that every investment must bring a quick return can't be applied to science. Society must support curiosity-driven research as a long-term investment, without demanding immediate usefulness. Other human activities are not subject to direct accountability: Wars, which involve huge investments with even larger negative returns, have been readily financed by the taxpayer throughout the ages.

Free the scientists: The exploitation of postdocs through low salaries and lack of job security must be abolished. PhD-level scientists should be offered decently-paid contracts for an indefinite period so that they can work on long-term projects free of existential worries. Deindustrialized science would probably need fewer scientists anyway, since eliminating mass production strategies means fewer assembly-line workers, which will make this proposal feasible also in financial terms.

Break the power of the editorial office: Scientific journals should return to their original role of disseminating knowledge, instead of controlling the scientists by evaluating them. Anonymous peer review should be replaced by a system of peer commentary, in which everyone openly takes responsibility for his or her opinion. Some publishers, such as BioMedCentral, a sister company of The Scientist, are already trying this. Electronic publications could then function similarly to weblogs, with comments from readers added continuously.

Give unbiased financial support: The current grant system should be replaced by a grant lottery in which winning project proposals are selected randomly, free from any undue peer influence. Such a lottery would take place once a year. An appropriate entry fee, say $5,000, would discourage frivolous submissions, and labs would not be allowed to submit multiple applications in a given financing round. A high-quality, uniform random-number generator would then select every tenth proposal without any human intervention at all. This 10% chance of winning would be similar to the current success rate at the major granting agencies such as the National Institutes of Health or the national Science Foundation. In the end, the same amount of money would be distributed, but "unorthodox" projects would not be subjected to discrimination.

These suggestions are intended to start a discussion on the future of academic science. We need proposals that can help science overcome its present difficulties.

András Aszódi works on epigenome informatics at the Institute for Molecular Pathology in Vienna.


Avatar of: jose brandao

jose brandao

Posts: 1

August 3, 2007

I would personally replace the terms 'postdocs' and 'PhD-level' by scientists in the sentence "The exploitation of postdocs through low salaries and lack of job security must be abolished. PhD-level scientists should be offered decently-paid contracts for an indefinite period so that they can work on long-term projects free of existential worries."

August 13, 2007

There are so many horror stories of graduate students. I endured some myself. Some choice ones: \n\nProfessor demanding to be made first author on a publication prof didn't write or do any work for so that a grad student can be prevented from getting one of the two pubs required to graduate. \n\nProfessors throwing roadblock after roadblock up in the path of excellent students to keep them working for them in their lab for 6, 7, 8 years. Same professors graduating mediocrities rapidly because they want them out. \n\nProfessors forcing grad students to leave after 5 years of work due to "insufficient funding" then hiring a new student a few months later. Former grad student seeing said professor publish 8 papers off the work done by grad student without giving credit to the student in so much as acknowledgment. \n\nGrad student doing experimental work to understand some process a professor was using in prof's lab. Professor not liking results because they called into question everything that had been done and getting the collaboration of the graduate chair to chase the student out of the program by slander. \n\nAnd on and on and on. I say science is gravely ill. When graduate students get together and realize that almost half their professors are cheating liars - things are terrible. When they realize that the system is systematically selecting primarily for brown nosing instead of ability, (unless the student is very lucky) things are awful.
Avatar of: do not want

do not want

Posts: 1

August 13, 2007

I tell to all my students not to get into science but get into a profession that requires a license to practice. I met and worked with people out side of US that has Ph.D and have no idea about science. They have MD/ PhD and don't have a single clue about how to do an experiment. The system is badly screwed up. I don't think the current system can be stopped. So, just don't get into science unless you really enjoy it even thought that you and your family is starving. Go get a profession that requires a US issued license to practice.
Avatar of: X


Posts: 1

August 13, 2007

When I was 8 years old I wrote a novel, I was the main character and I found the cure for AIDS. Today I'm almost a PhD and completely discouraged! I now realize that I cannot realize my dream because of the system built around Basic science research! My only salvation is to work on prevention. This has to stop! I believe it can change, it is still time...
Avatar of: Ruth Rosin

Ruth Rosin

Posts: 117

August 13, 2007

What is described in this special feature is a terribly dangerous, huge avalanche that is threatening to destroy everything that is good and valuable in science.\n\nIs it at all stoppable? I don't really know. Who is going to be able to implement the best proposals intended to cure this disease?\n\nTry to support a paradigms that are a heresy to those held by the "scientific establishment", because your integrity as a scientist obliges you to do so, and you will soon find yourself a pariah, unable to publish, and barely able to survive. You will eventually be forced to realize that Samuel Johnson was quite right when he made his sarcastic comment that "The only privilege heretics have is to burn at the stake!"\n\nI know. I have been for very many years supporting the heresy against the general approach to behavior that is based on the existence of "instincts", that has received its most impressive "validation", thanks to the "discovery" of the non-existent, "instinctual" communication system of honeybees, known as the honeybee "dance language".\n\nBoth the two co-founders of that general approach to behavior, and the 'discoverer" of the honeybee :"dance language", were awarded an undeserved, joint Nobel Prize in 1973.\n\nThe freedom of the Internet has been of some help, because it has made it possible for the "heretics" to make their views known, without anyone being able to block them. Where I see a promising "ray of light"is in the recently established "", which is a freely open, online, peer-review journal, maintained by Pub-Med.\n\nI can freely post there my own review of any article that is published in any journal that is included in the Pub-Med list. And I have actually begun to utilize this venue.\n\nThe only serious problem I see there is, that even though Pub-Med lists very many scientific journals that are not devoted specifically to medicine and other fields that are directly related to medicine, I strongly suspect that those who consult anything that is maintained by Pub-Med are, primarily professionals in these very specific field. \n\nThe behavioral science, especially when extended to cover animal behavior in general, is not directly relevant to medicine, and other fields directly related to medicine. And, as a result, I do not even know whether any review I post on "" is ever going to reach those for whom it is really intended.\n\nThis is very discouraging!\n\nOf course, what we need is an online freely open peer-review journal that would be maintained by an organization that is devoted to all sciences? But who is going to establish such an online journal? And how is this going to be done?\n\nDr. Adrian M. Wenner, who launched the whole honeybee "dance language" controversy in 1967, said years ago that he was not sure he would live to see victory. At the time I thought this was ridiculous, but I do not think so anymore; even though, in some sense it is far worse than ridiculous. The honeybee "dance language" hypothesis is none other than a stillborn hypothesis, erroneously elevated to the status of a revered, Nobel Prize winning ruling paradigm, and, thus, destroying the very foundations of the whole field of behavioral science. Nonetheless, more than 60 years after its first publication in a scientific journal in 1946, and more than 80 years after it was stillborn, it still seems to hold sway today.\n\nI keep wrecking my "brain" in search of any possible strategy, that I have not yet used, in an attempt to stop this small, but very dangerous avalanche. And posting my comment here is just one such new strategy that I have decided to try.
Avatar of: Gordon Couger

Gordon Couger

Posts: 23

August 14, 2007

There are a lot of things wrong in science. The trend to patent everything in sight and rushing it to production, the influence of industry's money on outcome motivated research and the lack of funding with out strings a mile long are all a problem. But a lottery to hand out funds and not judging the merit of work will result in a lot of garbage and very little result.\n\nThe flaws in peer review and other publishing problems can all be overcome by not publishing in those venues but in ones more fair. Relaxed peer review ends up with abuses like the planting Lynx DNA where there are no Lynx or the same with Spotted Owls and other things that have slipped by the internal review in the US Environmental Protection Agency.\n\nHard Science makes hard men and we sure can stand much more soft science.\n\nGC\n
Avatar of: András Aszódi

András Aszódi

Posts: 1

August 30, 2007

"But a lottery to hand out funds and not judging the merit of work will result in a lot of garbage and very little result." \n\nThe 'merit of work' cannot be judged before the work has been accomplished. One should give some chance to 'wild' projects that would never get funded otherwise; yes, this means higher risk, but potentially also a higher gain, because real breakthroughs in science almost always come from non-mainstream approaches.\n\nThere are more details on this and other issues in a longer version of this essay at which you may find interesting.
Avatar of: dc


Posts: 1

September 4, 2007

The concern is that a lot of poorly thought-out proposals will be entered into the lottery, and given an even chance with other proposals by scientists that have done thorough background research. \n\nAll "wild" projects are not created equal. From a random lottery, "The potential therapeutic effects of jelly-filled doughnuts" would be given equal weight to "The potential therapeutic effects of Ascophyllum nodosum". Clearly, making a farce of science by randomly assigning funds is not a smart way to support science. \n\n\n
Avatar of: for ever postdoc

for ever postdoc

Posts: 9

September 4, 2007

I am just wondering if everything considered, it would not make good sense for society and the economy to just hire every scientist who would be willing to do basic research, teach and participate in dissemination of knowledge to the public via internet presentations or conferences directed to large audiences (for no additional fee), so that everybody could be informed about new knowledge and discredited old theories.\n\nSalaries would be reasonable for professional people, like they are now in some countries, or some free time could be added to make limited income (and social status) more attractive. This would decrease unemployment among graduates, and countries which educate a lot of young people would not see them disappear in countries which do not make the (financial) effort. \n\nEverybody could be allocated a small working budget and collaboration would involve pooling resources, additional grant could be obtained the way they are now. At least it would discourage the massive amount of publications which contain all novel informations in their title (if even that).\n\nEconomically it would probably mean more spending on consumables, which create jobs (more people working contribute tax and social security money). If biomedical research was less geared toward commercial outcome, cheaper (and possibly safer and more efficient) treatments could be devised, if information was directed toward the public at large (not just specialist) we could also hope that people would consider and demand healthier food and living conditions, who knows it might also benefit the economy.\n\n
Avatar of: Xavi Fontana

Xavi Fontana

Posts: 1

September 4, 2007

EU funding for postdoc fellowships are quite restricted to a very limited topics of interests, mainly related with potentially therapeutic projects. The same happens with grants that support research. It is very common in fact, that a huge amount of research projects applications and research articles include the statement of "therapeutically potential", pretended to be derived from the results, even when this is clearly vague, and more a formula. I understand scientists are forced to shift their projects so as to fit with the funding entitites criteria, but it is also true that when awarded, usually lab leaders use the money not strictly in the way described in their proposal. Although there are many interesting factors outlined by the author and the participants, let me focus on the following point. Going sharpener to the root of the problem discussed here, obviously multifactorial, let´s start saying clearly that money to conduct research comes from society.. Then, it is feasible to say that funding entities administer money in a way that is justifiable to the source of origin, id est, society. Unfortunately, it seems nearly that the only acceptable way for society to maintain and justify the scientific community is to talk about direct benefits on human health. I think the narrowing windows for scientific research comes from this. Hermann Hesse, Nobel Prize in Literature, in his book DAS GLASPERLENSPIEL (1943), ultimately deals with the problem of disconnection between society and the intellectual elitist inhabitants of Castilia. In my opinion, that book is a very good vision of the danger that threats specialized and academic institutions when the knowledge they produce do not arrive to society. András Aszódi expresses the problem and makes a prediction on the future of science (pessimistic, but realistic, perhaps?) in a manner that resembles the one used by the main character of the citated book. And the big level of ignorance among population on scientific issues and low interest that generic science originates in non-specialized society is obviously a problem we are facing. I think that we are digging our own tomb when at first instance, scientists care so little for the transmission of knowledge to people, that couldn´t understand why money should go to ?innovative-basic-integrative? projects that on the other hand, could be so valuable. So, let´s consider that we are, primarily, facing with an educative deficiency. The illness that scientific community is suffering is proportional to the sparse level of penetration of their discoveries. What do press and newspapers publish on science? Roughly, only this health-related discoveries!! We must realize that point, and scientific community should be much more vigorous in science popularization. Perhaps, society could understand why could be interesting to conduct research beyond the purpose of increasing human lifespan. \nI hope that this gives a little light, at least, a chance of discussion, to why we are nowadays running to this endpoint and the industrialization is poisoning the scientific interest for nature and knowledge itself, and drying our inspiration. This also leads to a extremely competitive and, sort of speak, usually hostile, distrustful and non-collaborative attitude between scientific community; we all are pursuing the same.\nP.S. Thanks for the opportunity.
Avatar of: David Lentini

David Lentini

Posts: 2

September 4, 2007

I think the article makes some good points, but is not very realistic on others.\n\nI agree that peer review is failing, largely becuase it's collapsing under the weight of the volume of publications. The structure worked pretty well during the years when science was much more personal--less industrial--and there were fewer journals. Today, getting attention for results and programs that are truly new and interesting is tougher because of the volume of submissions. (And don't forget that most reviewers have their own work to do too.)\n\nBut I think the role of journals has always been to disseminate *quality* science, not just report on results. Frankly, I think the rise of the various journals dedicated to "rapid communications" has done much to encourage poor quality and outright fraud by rewarding quantity over quality. Instead, I would require all results to be made available on a Wiki-like Web site, with appropriate tools for comments and questions. That would allow for good peer review by increasing the pool of peer-reviewers and give the more general scientific and non-scientific public a chance to comment as well.\n\nAs to volume and the pressure to produce publications, well, we've entered the era of "publish of perish" that the late J.B. Conant warned everyone about in the 1950s. Tying grants and advancement to publication numbers is silly. But I think this reflects the fact that we don't have a good system for identifying quality researchers. The Wiki system I mentioned above could provide a much richer source of quality-related data for reviewing someone's work.\n\nAs for funding, I tend to agree with several other posts that a lottery system is not likely to work well. First, what connection is there between a lotter win and the quality of a proposed research program? I think the problem today--and the author seems to agree--is a lack of quality control. Making the system a lottery doesn't offer any obvious way to promote good scientists and weed-out bad scientists. Again, a more public review of the research would give a better reflection on the researchers and ideas worth supporting.\n\nAs for the general question of funding support, I agree with the observation that post-docs and other researchers deserve better, but I don't see how quite see the author's points that we can sovle this by eliminating "production-line science", which is not defined. \n\nWhich brings me to my last point. I quit my doctoral program (physical chemistry) almost twenty years ago and became a "licensed professional" for many of reasons the mentioned in the artilce. Still, I have worked closely with scientists in academic and industrial settings since then. I generally agree that modern scientific research is "customer driven", like modern industry; but I believe you'll find that was generally true even in the good old days when science was a cottage industry. Sure, there were the few like Newton and Lavoisier who could fund their own work. But the vast majority relied on patrons or their own funding sources. The real difference came in the aftermath of World War II, when the impact of scientific research on industry and defense became clear and Big Science was a must for every industrialized country.\n\nIn short, then, science has become a victim of its own success. But scientists have been very slow to understand this reality, and they continue to act as if scientific education is meant to elimiate the "bottom 99%" of students from joining the ranks of the Illuminati. Of course, those in the bottom 99% go on to become our business and political leaders, who control the purse strings in industry and government. So then, how can we complain when funding priorities are based on specious publication counts, or vast amount of funding goes to a few well-connected faculty or industries that offer expensive drugs for disease that could be avoided by better diet,exercise, and accesst to medical care?\n\n
Avatar of: R.C. von Borstel

R.C. von Borstel

Posts: 9

September 4, 2007

I was invited to the University of Alberta in 1971 to become the Chairman of the Department of Genetics. I held this position for two five-year terms before resigning the Chairmanship in order to get back into the laboratory more often.\n\nDuring these ten years, I helped increase the grant and contract funding in the Department of Genetics by 15.4 times compared with 2.4 times for the University as a whole. As the Italian scientist Adriano Buzzati-Traverso once said, ? There is lots of money for research out there. All you need to do is go out and get it.? This is a truism that can still be used in these days even where Government Leaderships in both Canada and the U.S. consider that practicality or religion or fear of terrorists are more important than finding out how the universe works. The enormous cutbacks in scientific funding by governments must be reversed by talking to elected politicians as much as possible, and convincing them that supporting basic science is far more important than almost anything else that they are supporting now.\n\nWhen I arrived in Alberta, only half of the staff members held grants or contracts. There was only one postdoctoral fellow supported by a trust account. At the end of ten years, all of the staff members held grants from federal research councils or contracts either from industry or Provincial projects. \n\nDuring my ten-year tenure as Chairman, the 12 Professors remained the same in number, but the technicians, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows more than doubled in number. With a few exceptions, we did not keep our own undergraduate students for graduate studies. I told the best undergraduates who wished to go into graduate studies that they had learned about 80% of what we had to teach, and instead of staying to learn about 5% more, they should go to other Universities where they could learn another 80%. I assisted these students to get into first-rate Universities with first-rate scientists who would help them rather than use them.\n \n Moreover, I recommended individuals (staff, post-docs and graduate students) in the Department, when their research was ripe, to be invited to speak in plenary sessions at important International Meetings around the world. All but two of the academic staff were unappreciated internationally when I arrived. Within ten years more than half of the academic staff members were well known internationally for their research activities, and graduate students and post-docs had no problems in obtaining excellent faculty positions elsewhere. \n\nSo it is the role for Departmental Chairs and Professors to advance the students; usually, students have already been advised by other students which professors are likely to exploit their efforts. Individuals do exist who exploit others ? they tend to be people who feel that the adage first made by Kimball Chase Atwood III, ?publish or perish? requires that they themselves must be thieves. They tend to fall by the wayside over the years, and students who work with them are washed away as well. If caught in such a trap, the wise student clears out as fast as possible ? after all, the student is not married to him or her.\n\n

September 5, 2007

I agree with most comments and suggestions in the article except the lottery - based grant system.\nSuch a system would probably involve the danger of funding unsounds projects. I would propose a different lottery system, that is a lottery that should select the peer reviewers both for grant applications and manuscript publication so to break the power of the " important professors" and "authoritative journals" editors. The peer reviewers should not be anonimous and selected by the lottery among all scientists willing to serve as reviewers.

September 5, 2007

Dear Andras Aszodi, \n \nI entirely agree with you about the decadence of the Academic Science, that from the role of disseminating knowledge has changed to ?marketing discipline?. When I decided to be a scientist, I chose this area because of the curiosity, innovation, independence. In reality, Science is not like this.\nFurther, I have also noticed that the so called ?supervisor or academics? (but I am sure that exceptions will exist ? hopefully) do not pay attention and do not invest in the training of both Post and Undergraduate students (it seems sometimes that students are a weight rather that a person to invest in).\n In addition, the cancer which affect Science is the peer review. Effectively, you can publish only if your work follows the ?flavour of the month?.\nAs some publisher is trying to do, it would be useful to have a forum/blog where authors can submit their manuscripts (so they can let people know of their research) and each readers can register (so they are not anonymous) to this forum can and add comments continuously (a sort of wikipedia). \n \nFinally, I think that if Science will come back to the origin we can see Science blooms again.\n

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