End public funding of science

There are probably few careers which have been so romanticised by the entertainment industry as that of scientists. Wild haired avuncular lunatics in white coats work ceaselessly to prevent the destruction of the earth by asteroids, virii or the occasional zombie outbreak, or tirelessly spend long hours in spotless labs finding cures for every disease imaginable. They all have one thing in common; an altruistic and self-sacrificing drive for solving problems for the collective good. Their results are their own rewards.

Many postgraduate students experience a similar feeling of moral purpose. After all, it is a field where hard work returns results, and there is satisfaction in understanding how the world around us works in every minute detail. An advancement in a field, if strictly verified and repeated by the shared language of the scientific method, is a permanent achievement even if not entirely correct.

Now, if you were in Darwin’s shoes, backed by an ample family fortune and a very patient wife, you would be free to pursue your passion for science over the course of decades before finally publishing the Origin of Species. The immediate economic benefits of his work can be argued, but at the time there were few applications which would result in tangible financial gain compared to the work of Edison and Tesla, whose work was driven directly by investors who expected real products in return for their support. For Darwin, the fruits of his labour was more on a personal satisfaction level rather than financial gain.

The main problem with academia today is the primary goal of scientific investigation is something different from the Teslas and Darwins of previous years. The central theme of modern science is funding. Without it, nothing can or will be done. A researcher will receive funding by convincing a board of more senior scientists that her work is important. The primary way to prove your value is through your publications. Essentially, a project is started with a publication in mind. Often, this is already drafted out before experiments even begin, and as results come in, conclusions are updated and a target journal is decided. The choice of journal is also critical; a publication in a journal which is by consensus deemed to be high level, for instance Nature or Science, is considered to have higher impact than articles in other journals. You would maybe need several articles in lower impact journals to equal one article in Nature. When a journal is agreed on, then the authors must carefully select reviewers from their peers. The combined impact of all your publications will then strongly influence your ability to draw in funding from the granting authority.

Academic institutes will be more inclined to host scientists who receive ample funding, thereby improving their standing and also getting a substantial cut of the grant money. Successful researchers will be able to hire more PhD students to labor nights and weekends in order to produce more publications, and the carousel spins on. The science Ponzi scheme rolls on until all funds are spent.

It should come as no great surprise that this system of artificial success and consensus policy creates plenty of opportunities for abuse. Since the most important goal of a publication is to be published, there is a temptation for researchers to exaggerate their findings and downplay drawbacks of their methodology. After all, if their professional career relies on their work being recognised, who can blame them? Even worse, data is sometimes found to be false and unrepeatable, figures manipulated and conclusions misleading. In 2016, over 650 published articles were retracted either due to sloppiness or fraud. It is, for obvious reasons, difficult to estimate the degree of fraud in publications, and even more difficult to distinguish human error from a conscious attempt to mislead. However, a recent study of roughly 20,000 papers revealed that 3.8% of them contain images that were either duplicated or manipulated. Since these cases only comprise a small subset of the information contained in a publication, it is fairly safe to assume that the actual degree of error is much higher.

Another way to improve the chances of publication is to choose reviewers carefully based on their attitude towards you and your work. Benevolent reviewers can fast-track you to a successful publication, while reviewers who compete with you are given the power to delay, derail or even in some cases steal your work. The potential for political cabals of researchers reviewing each other is immense. Again, the currency of publications corrupts the end goal, which is to judge science solely by its end result, and not who the researcher happens to socialise at conferences with.

Alternatively, if you are not lucky enough to be involved in a network of allies, you can always create your own. In 2015, 64 papers were retracted when it was discovered that one researcher had created fake reviewers, along with emails, and in effect reviewed their own papers. At least no one can claim that intense pressure to publish stifles creativity. The discovery of similar schemes resulted  in 250 retractions in 2015, and has been been described as a trend.

These are just a few examples of how the academic system is fundamentally broken. There are without a doubt still scientists who, as Tesla did, work diligently towards advancements that would result in concrete rewards in a market economy, and there are assuredly still the Darwins who dedicate their life to their passion to understand nature and the universe. It is unlikely however that either would thrive in the academic environment of today. Darwin would not see much funding, based on his rather terse publication record, and Tesla would not have the political skill to survive in the modern cutthroat publication industry that public science has become.

Let’s do ourselves a favour and end this charade. It is a waste of both financial and human resources. It has even claimed lives, and shortened many others, all under the grand deception of ‘altruism’. In the next article, I will explain what we must do to once again shape a new golden era of science from the ashes of corruption and fraud.

Note. See Retraction Watch for continuous updates of academic fraud.

Sean Hooper

  10 comments for “End public funding of science

  1. Paul Marks
    Sep 14, 2018 at 1:58 pm

    British and American science got hardly any taxpayer money at all – up to the mid 20th century.

    Universities were mostly independent of government funding, and there were many private foundations and trusts, as well as far sighted commercial companies (with real owners – rather than today with endless managers responsible to “institutional owners” who are really just more administrators).

    The achievements of British and American science before government funding became dominant in the late 20th century should be well known to everyone (if you do not know them – then look them up). On the other hand government funding was dominant in German science – and its achievements were also impressive.

    So, I suppose, it really comes down to what a person prefers – voluntary funding (commercial and charitable) being dominant, or government (taxpayer) funding being dominant. I prefer the former – statists prefer the later. But to pretend, as some people do, that opposing government funding means a person is “anti science” is a LIE.

    • Sep 15, 2018 at 8:45 pm

      I don’t like the use of the word “lie” where there is any doubt that the person speaking (who is a hypothetical person afaict) knows the relevant facts. The funding arrangements for science in at least two countries more than 70 years ago are not something I would expect the majority of people to be able to recall.

      • Julie near Chicago
        Sep 19, 2018 at 8:52 pm

        I think Paul’s point in his final sentence is that it is not true that opposing taxpayer (i.e. government) funding of science means that the opposer is “anti-science” … in any meaning of the term.

        Or, more succinctly, {the set of all persons opposing government funding of science} ≠ (the set of all persons who are “anti-scence”}.

        Therefore the claim that the latter set is a subset of the former is false. A person who claims that opposing “government”-funded science is anti-science is therefore wrong; he may be ignorant, or he may be LYING.

        Because spreading that belief though one knows it to be untrue is to LIE for reasons of propaganda.

        • Julie near Chicago
          Sep 19, 2018 at 9:04 pm

          Actually, Simon, your point (now that I’ve sounded off and re-read what you wrote) is precisely that there some people who honestly believe that opposing gov-funded science just has to mean that the opposer is anti-science. As I myself to say above: “…he may be ignorant….”

          But, of course, Paul’s ending sentence above does imply his acknowledgment of this fact. For it begins,

          “But to pretend, as some people do….”

        • Julie near Chicago
          Sep 19, 2018 at 9:11 pm

          This might turn out to be a re-post, but I do feel the need to clarify.

          Simon, your point really is that some who say that opposition to govt funding of science means that the opposer is anti-science can be the result of honest, though ignorant, belief. As I too mention above.

          Paul implies the same in the beginning words of his final sentence (my boldface):

          “But to pretend, as some people do,…”

          And now, I think the horse was already dead awhile back. Sorry. >:(

          • Paul Marks
            Sep 27, 2018 at 11:45 am

            It is possible that some people really do believe that being anti government funding means a person is “anti science” – but I just do not believe that most people who use such an “argument” are sincere.
            I think they know that Edison, Tesla (and so on) were not government funded, and that Faraday and Maxwell and the other great practical and theoretical scientists were not government funded – they are pretending they do not know.

            However, yes, SOME people really do not know and use the “argument” in good faith – there I accept Simon’s correction.

        • Paul Marks
          Sep 27, 2018 at 11:42 am

          Exactly Julie.

      • Paul Marks
        Sep 27, 2018 at 11:42 am

        My point was Simon that some people pretend that being anti government funding for something (science or something else) means that one is “anti” that thing – for example “anti” science.

        A similar dishonest trick (if you do not like the word “lie”) is used when someone says that they are opposed to a government law banning something – it is then pretended that they are “pro” that thing (for example drug abuse).

        In short the option of liberty (for example the voluntary funding of science, or moral argument rather than government laws in relation to drug abuse) is assumed-not-to-exist. We are “assumed out” of the discussion – and I do not believe that this is done in good faith.

        For example the same people who celebrate J.M. Keynes creating the “Arts Council” in the 1940s must (by definition must – as they are celebrating its creation) know that for most of British history there was no “Arts Council” – indeed the period up to World War II. They can see the physical age of museums are galleries and so on – they can not be unaware that these are older than the 1940s.

        Just as people must know that the great free hospitals (and the small cottage hospitals as well) are obviously older than the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948.

  2. Paul Marks
    Sep 14, 2018 at 2:00 pm

    As for the present system – of “peer review” and the demands to conform to endless official procedures to get “funding”.

    I can not thinking of a better way of CRUSHING independent thought and strangling independent research and real creativity.

  3. Oct 2, 2018 at 9:53 pm

    I think we got that cleared up 😉

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