Mitigation of the crisis in science

In perspective of the topic discussed here:

The Real Science Crisis: Bleak Prospects for Young Researchers
Tight budgets, scarce jobs, and stalled reforms push students away from scientific careers.

It might sound presumptuous, but in my opinion policy makers are looking for solutions in the wrong places.

Departments and students must recognize that the majority of science doctorate recipients no longer become professors, and that realization should cause a shift in the culture and practice of graduate education. “There’s a mismatch between the opportunities available to students as they complete their work and their expectations and the nature of their training along the way.”

Indeed, as a rule, tenured professor is the only stable academic position, and amount of those is strictly limited. But instead of blaming the educational system for producing too many PhDs and inventing programs to prepare graduates for the job market outside of academia, one could simply devise a new type of a “tenure” academic position. A stable intermediate between a PostDoc and a Professor – with small budgets and limited responsibility, but stable! This would secure a person who is willing to stay in academia, but did not acquire enough luck to reach Professor level. In modern world of rapidly evolving methodology and extensive interdisciplinary research, those people will be of much higher value than one might expect. In fact, given higher efficiency of knowledge dissemination within small research groups, this could also resolve the problem with quality of postgraduate education.

The second problem is harder to spot and uneasy to accept. The source of it lies within the existing “peer-based” evaluation system for science and research, which forms the core of publishing and funding mechanisms. Quotation marks show up for the reason of “peer-based” in many cases functioning in celebrity-based and celebrity-biased manner.
This evaluation system worked fairly well with limited number of scientists, when global awareness of ongoing research was possible in most of the scientific disciplines. However, once electronic media accelerated the rate of scientific discovery, diversifying research world and increasing information flow to unbearable levels, the existing “peer-based” methods became obsolete and destructive. And while policy makers are trying to solve problems by scaling up the funding, the system cracks:

…Congress doubled the NIH budget from $13.6-billion to $27.3-billion between 1998 and 2003. Since then, the agency’s appropriations have not kept pace with inflation, which has eroded the actual amount available for research.

Beyond inflation, immense amount of those resources vanishes in the redundancy of our efforts. Existing evaluation system discourages sharing of knowledge and expertise, leading to unhealthy competition, secrecy, data falsification, and as a result – redundancy of research. One really has to restructure the whole system and ideology behind it, focusing on elimination of pyramidal hierarchy, giving more power to young scientists, introducing new methods for efficient knowledge dissemination and encouraging sharing of research artifacts. This restructuring in turn will release a lot of resources, which can be rerouted back to increase the amount of stable research positions available within academy.

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There is also a bit of discussion on this topic going at friendfeed.

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3 responses to “Mitigation of the crisis in science

  1. The problem with creating more stable positions is that the issues in research funding means that departments can’t afford to commit to providing long term positions. Key issue is that employer funding is generally running in a different stream to the research funding yet the two are intimately tied. Less tail wagging dog and more a case of the dog having four hind legs

  2. Apologies for my stubbornness 😉 but in my view what you are pointing to is more of a “how-to-do”, than “what-to-do” issue..

    Lets say departments keep the budget of their long term positions fixed, but change the “per tenure” investments, thus increasing the number of tenure positions?! Given that most of researchers stay in academy more of inspiration and enthusiasm, than of (financial) value of a professor position, this shall not seriously affect the quality of specialists on the tenure track..

    Stable positions offered within global funding frameworks, like NIH, might bring even more benefit to the concept – specialists would be able to change their affiliations once in a while, thus increasing efficiency of expertise dissemination..

    The main problem, imho, is to devise a smart evaluation/crediting model allowing to eliminate existing “manual” peer-reviewing efforts…something like a new type of metric you have pointed to at your blog

    This is absolutely essential, especially if we want to see an increase in amount of independent grants & positions..Provided sufficient automation of this evaluation process, one would also relief professors from spending lots of their time fighting for money and suffering from Cell_Nature_Science disease..which also might help reviving science and education.

  3. Pingback: electronic discovery

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