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Why Most Scientist Suck At Their Job

Preface

First of all I want to thank you for taking the time to read this post, it means a lot. Secondly, I do not want any readers to think I do not appreciate the hard work that scientist and researcher devote to their professions. Being a scientist myself and currently doing clinical research, I understand there are a lot of barriers that go beyond what is seen by the public.

The behind the scenes work for every published article, news bulletin, and book that is released. Politics at universities and policies from lawmakers all impacts this work to, which is often overlooked.

So if you are reading this don’t forget to show some respect to the many researchers and scientists tirelessly doing their work, sometimes behind the scenes, and with little recognition. They deserve the appreciation.

Now lets get into the post.

What are Researchers and Scientists?

The term researcher and scientist are frequently used interchangeably. This is not necessarily always correct however. Much like all squares are rectangles; thereby, not all rectangles are squares, all scientists are researchers but not researchers are scientists.

A scientist is someone that studies the hard or life sciences. Topics like physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology, neuroscience, microbiology, ecology, zoology, to name a few.

This vernacular has made its way to the “soft” sciences, such as political scientist, social scientist. The principle applies but the scientific methods are different.

A researcher is anyone that collects and analyzes data in any field of study. These could be any of the sciences listed before, or business, management, sociology, economics, and literature.

ScientistResearcher
Hard or Life SciencesAny field of study (Hard or life sciences, business, literature, economics, etc.)
Tests hypotheses verified observationsCollects and analyses data on a topic to better quantify findings and trends
Seeks to further knowledge in a fieldSeeks to better understand a topic
All scientist are researchers (in some degree)Not all researchers are scientists

These professions can work in a variety of different settings. Agendas and goals vary by environment and context of the professional. However they almost all universally struggle with one thing: the dissemination of knowledge, the sharing of findings, and the communication of discovery and innovation for the general good.

Government Funding

This is going to sound like a rant, but hear me out. In academia researchers are being paid and funded largely in part by the government, by government dollars. Where do these dollars come from, your taxes. You are paying for the majority of scientific advancement at academic institutions, private or public (Sargent, 2018).

Private Funding

The next largest funder is business research and private funding; much of this constitutes biotech, pharmaceutical, and tech research (Sargent, 2018). These are incredibly resource intensive fields and require substantial fund raising from private sources.

I can already hear people saying that businesses are entitled to trade secrets. No, I am not saying that businesses need to share trade secrets. I am however suggesting there needs to be some accountability to where the data comes form and how it is used.

Biopharm and Clinical Trials

If you are using a prescription, one that is the subject of one of these clinical trials funded by business, then most likely you would figure the results from this research is readily available to doctors and patients right? No, not necessarily. There are innumerable studies that have yielded biopharma products without publishing their results.

I bet as a patient you would want to know about the percentage of patients in the trial that had side effects for the new drug you’re taking. Well just because the drug is on the market does not mean that the information from the studies has been released yet (Hopewell, 2009; Jones, 2013). Some of this data will never be published, as it is only held on for a certain period of time before being destroyed.

This may be surprising to some. This does not however mean that they are not rigorously tested and validated. Investigational products are indeed run through various regulatory checks and balances so that they pass the base level of effectiveness and safety (FDA, 2022). As someone that currently works in this field I can assure you that there are a lot of checks and balances that ensure the proper requirements are met before a drug is pushed to market. Even if not all of the data is shared for everyone to see.

Publish or Perish Culture

The term publish or perish is frequently used in academia. It is the ideology that in order to make a name for yourself and get tenure, a form of job security and prestige at most universities, you need to continuously meet quotas for publications. The more research you get your name on the more money it brings to the university. The more money and references with the host institution the more opportunities and money they get. It is a never ending cycle.

I am not a professor but I have spent the last 5 years in higher education. I can assure you that this mentality, though less prevalent than a decade ago, is still strong. This is only further exacerbated by institutions that are ‘soft money’ environments. This means that faculty are paid a meager amount as part of their base salary, then the rest is supplemented by the grants they receive to do research. It incentivizes numerical results.

This can be compared to a hard money environment. This is where the salary is more substantial and does not get supplemented by grants. Though in many cases hard money still means that researchers need to get a certain amount of publications out in order to satisfy their contract with the institution.

For more information on hard money versus soft money you can go to this blog that talks more about it Sociobiology.

There is also the barrier of journals monetizing articles. Hiding scientific discoveries behind paywalls and subscriptions to their journals. Understandably, the review process and publishing process is not free. It requires some compensation in order to recoup its investment in preparing articles for publication.

This increase in articles because of the “publish or perish” mentality in academia leads to only more articles behind sent to journals; therefore, more reviewers need to spend time on them; thereby journals need to shell out more money and eventually the costs of all this labor have to fall on someone.

There was an article by Indiana Lee in the EuroScientist that talks about the immediate need for more open access articles in science to combat scientific mistrust and misinformation (Lee, 2022). It suggests that this cycle will continue to climb unless something drastic is done. I highly recommend reading the article.

Validation Crisis

This is only further exacerbated by the fact that science has a validation crisis. The job of a scientist is to innovate and discover new science. They also have an obligation to let people know what they found and share their results.

There is another obligation scientists have that is frequently overlooked. That is their duty to validate results and studies.

In essence fact check articles that are already out there. In human subjects research this is overlooked and a topic of concern (Schimmack, 2021).

This crisis was brought up a few years ago when a team found that there were errors in the programming and statistical software used for fMRI imaging (a form of imagining of the brain that looks at blood flow) (Lieberman, 2009). This potentially jeopardizes hundreds maybe even thousands of scientific articles results.

This is data that people depend on to make future decisions. This is information that is utilized in hospitals, business meetings, taught in classrooms and much more.

It is pivotal to rerun studies that have already been completed to see if the results that had been gathered were valid or reliable. Science is an iterative process that requires confirmation of results in order to build upon the foundation of research. Without this studies could be standing on a poor foundation that sets them adrift in the wrong direction: ultimately setting science back.

The debate of funding and publishing more validation studies is still ongoing. It is not a glamorous job but it needs to be done. Scientists want their time and effort funded to do these studies as they are necessary. However, the government is hesitant to fund millions of dollars worth of research that, in their eyes, has already been done.

Poor Communication Skills

For those of you that have been in higher education. Especially STEM fields, will likely understand my pain when I say most research is incredibly dense, hard to read, and piled with jargon and lingo.

The most cited paper of all time is called Protein measurement with the Folin phenol reagent; it has been cited over 300,000 times since its publication in the Journal of Biological Chemistry in 1951 (Reagent, 1951). This is the summative paragraph for the introduction:

“In the belief that this reagent, nevertheless, has considerable merit for certain application, but that its peculiarities and limitations need to be understood for its fullest exploitation, it has been studied with regard t.o effects of variations in pH, time of reaction, and concentration of reactants, permissible levels of reagents commonly used in handling proteins, and interfering substances. Procedures are described for measuring protein in solution or after precipitation with acids or other agents, and for the determination of as little as 0.2 y of protein.”

Now if you are a biochemist, chemical engineer, protein scientist, this most likely made sense. However for the majority of people this meant nothing. So even if someone wanted to read scientific articles that are open access, such as these, the general public would have no clue what is being communicated.

You could argue that this jargon was a reflection of the field or the time it was published.

Great observation. Here is an article that was highly published in the last few years. It is called Network Neuroscience it was published in Nature and has over 1,000 citations.

“The convergence of empirical and computational advances opens new frontiers of scientific inquiry, including network dynamics, manipulation and control of brain networks, and integration of network processes across spatiotemporal domains. We review emerging trends in network neuroscience and attempt to chart a path toward a better understanding of the brain as a multiscale networked system.”

Again for those in this field this probably made sense. Nevertheless it does not convey the findings to a wide audience. Research is a slow process, there are rarely groundbreaking studies that shatter the way we think about life. Instead, I like to think of research as one puzzle piece of a huge mosaic that is ever changing, ever moving, and ever growing. The more research we do the more of the mosaic is filled in, the more we also realize we don’t know. 

The issue is that many scientists will make substantial contributions to science and publish these articles but not effectively communicate it with the general public, the funders, or the subjects of the study. This is a huge problem in public health research. Many of the participants get recruited for a study but never get followed up with after data has been collected. The study has no real positive impact on them.

These are people that are recruited for these studies because they may be a vulnerable or high risk population. They may be exploring toxicant implications on fetal development. These are not far flung possibilities; these are important and imminent issues these participants face.

Science is using them to get publications, and yes they are pushing the field of science. But they fail to go back to these people, the ones suffering now and truly help them.

At very least, there needs to be a push to demystify science. Learn ways to effectively communicate results back to those that it matters most. As well as share findings with others that may be interested. Especially when it is their money that pays for it.

Conclusion

There are a variety of different factors that lead to the publications’ biases, and barriers that prevent publications from being available to the public. The blame should not be put solely on scientists and researchers. Though they are part of the problem and sometimes cater their work to the other dozen or so experts in their field, they are most likely not intentionally keeping information from the public.

Rather our society has orchestrated a system in which more publications being pumped out every year is valued higher than a methodical process of disseminating these results to the public. Focusing on the publication of research findings over the sharing of research finings.

I am quite interested to hear what others think of these issues. How could these issues be addressed? Do you find yourself grappling with these problems at work, at school? Have you found solutions?

Leave feedback and comments as always!

Quote to Live by

“In all science, error precedes the truth, and it is better it should go first than last.”

Horace Walpole

References

Follow meIndiana LeeIndiana Lee is a writer and journalist from the Pacific Northwest with a passion for covering workplace issues. (2022, January 6). Why scientific journals should become more accessible to the general public. EuroScientist journal. Retrieved March 12, 2022, from https://www.euroscientist.com/scientific-journals-more-accessible-to-the-general-public/ 

FDA drug and device resources. Home – ClinicalTrials.gov. (n.d.). Retrieved March 12, 2022, from https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/info/fdalinks 

Lieberman, M. D., & Cunningham, W. A. (2009). Type I and Type II error concerns in fMRI research: re-balancing the scale. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 4(4), 423-428.

Hopewell, S., Loudon, K., Clarke, M. J., Oxman, A. D., & Dickersin, K. (2009). Publication bias in clinical trials due to statistical significance or direction of trial results. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (1).

Jones, N. (2013). Half of US clinical trials go unpublished. Nature, 10.

Sargent, J. F. (2018). US research and development funding and performance: Fact sheet. Accessed Congressional Research Service.

Reagent, F. P. (1951). PROTEIN MEASUREMENT WITH THE. J. biol. Chem, 193, 265-275.

Schimmack, U. (2021). The validation crisis in psychology. Meta-Psychology, 5.

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