Science, policy & economics

On Monday, the senior scientist Lord Krebs wrote an article in The Times entitled:-

“We might err, but science is self-correcting”

The basic argument was:-

“If claims about climate change need to be debunked, you can rely on scientists to do it. Scepticism is what we are all about.”

See the following link:-
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_co…

Yesterday, an outspoken senior Professor replies:-

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/letters/article7019…

Sir,
Obtaining evidence requires time and money. Research funding in the UK is increasingly channelled to predetermined ends, and those who win in the fierce competition for research council grants tend to be those who endorse them.

Barriers to sceptical inquiry are augmented by a “peer review” system in which the worth of a research proposal, and its chance of receiving support, are assessed by those who have succeeded previously. Expert opinion rarely looks sympathetically on those who challenge the orthodox view. University autonomy is diminishing as institutions vie with each other to demonstrate “impact”, and science departments are rebadged with shallow names in order to advertise their relevance to assumed needs of society. Vital freedom, safeguarded by tenure, is replaced by a ruthless system of targets, the most important being “Bring in grant income or you’re out”.

Scepticism used to be what we were all about. Now, it’s “grantsmanship”.

Professor John F. Allen
Professor of Biochemistry
Queen Mary, University of London.

This is quite simply an argument that the scientific method has broken down in the UK (and elsewhere) because sceptics in all areas are drowned out by the market-driven model of research dominated by the Research Assessment Exercise and the “transfer system” for academics.

It is deeply ironic that now that the deficiencies of the market system are being recognised widely as a result of the banking crisis, their deficiencies elsewhere are not being recognised.

This is no trivial issue, in that if the scientific method has broken down, then scientific input into hugely expensive policy-making may be deeply flawed, and thus we may be spending billions for the wrong reasons.

However, it seems highly unlikely that given the huge panoply of University league tables worldwide, research assessment, peer review and a government that believes in assessing all research in terms of its “economic and social impact”, performance related pay etc, that this trend will ever be reversed. In the UK we inherited it from the USA.

What chance is there that we will ever throw off this malign influence? The same forces are at work in the continuing attacks on homeopathy & the lack of research money awarded to alternative medicine in general.

Alan

One Response to Science, policy & economics

  1. Oliver Dowding March 21, 2010 at 1:00 am #

    Precisely! I can thoroughly recommend a book. “BSE: a disaster of biblical proportions, or a disaster of British science?” by Janie Axelrad.

    The book explains in great detail why the system of peer review, and also short-term research contracts, leads to very poor outcomes. Nobody can afford to challenge the initial findings, simply having to devise further research projects, which either endorse the original, or operate with research in an allied field or direction, but never one to challenge the original.

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