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

Should I care about the decline of the “Conservative” press?

When I gleefully point out the decline of the left press in Britain (Guardian and KGB “Independent” falling apart – Financial Times down to 50 thousand or so physical sales in this country….), the reply is sometimes give that the Conservative press is also in decline. But I sometimes wonder if I should care – I will give a couple of example to explain why I find it hard to care.

© Shutter Operator

The Daily Telegraph (supposedly the most high quality newspaper in Britain) ran a terrible obituary of Sir Rhodes Boyson  (a headmaster and Conservative party minister – who was proud to meet and listen to) – literally kicking a man when he is down (indeed dead).

Sir Rhodes had a Lancashire accent  – but the Daily Telegraph, absurdly, claimed he was “inarticulate” and even compared him to John Prescott  (a Labour party minister famous for his inablity to clearly express his thoughts), and it did not stop there. None of the books Sir Rhodes wrote was named – and the obitury had a vile sneering tone.

And over at the rival of the Daily Telegraph – the News International owned Times…..

Well the obituary of Sir Rhodes Boyson was better (I will give them that), but in the same issue (Thursday, August 30th), there was….

American coverage that claimed that Paul Ryan planned to “slash” American govenrment spending, destroy the “safety net” and leave people to the “vaguaries of the free market”.

In reality Paul Ryan just want to slow the growth  of American government spending – the coverage in the Times was fantasy.

And in British coverage?

The latest proposal by the leader of the Liberal Democratic party for higher taxes was opposed by the Times – but with their own proposal for higher taxes – an end to “loopholes” “taken advantage of by the rich” (and on and on).

If this is the “Conservative Press” I will not be too upset to see it go.

Leave the BBC to the left

Tom Waters over at Conservative Home has an interesting peice on the BBC, plugging the Freedom Association event tomorrow. It is nowhere near being properly abolitionist but is worth a quick read. This comment, from “Y Rhyfelwr Dewr”, is of greater interest strategically:

Personally, I’d say cut down the BBC hugely — probably down to Radio 3 and 4, and probably BBC 4. Stuff which is culturally and educationally desirable, but fundamentally non-commercial.

There is absolutely no need for BBC to be competing with commercial broadcasters that cannot hope to out-bid it. There is certainly no justification for tax money to pay for shows like “Heros” which ITV would have bent over backwards to broadcast.

The BBC would then be funded from the arts budget (which would be increased, but not by nearly the value of the licence fee). Every year, the BBC would need to justify the quality of its output, competing with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Welsh National Opera, the National Theatre, and a myriad of others demanding a share of the pot.

Then, remove all regulations governing bias. BBC  can be as biased as it likes, knowing that, if it is too relentlessly left-wing, inevitably, ITN or Sky News will deliberately adopt a strongly right-wing approach. Competition is wonderful!

I found this to be a useful reminder that competition works at every angle. A public sector adversary, competing with the BBC  for the same funding provides a new pressure on the BBC. Altrusitic sacrifice would compete with altrusitic sacrifice for the same limited pool of taxpayers blood.

Altruism’s passkey to wealth is need, and it’s obvious that every other artform would come along with it’s own pathetic list of artistic and therefore fiducary needs. As it dangles ovre the precipice of it’s own intellectual foundation, the feet of the BBC would snapped at from below by obscure dramatists from Aberdeen to Plymouth.

A remote and elitist quango would then proceed to decide what the BBC must do to justify it’s nightly feeding. The chances of this being anything like what the viewer wants are remote, and so it is a very good idea to get this remote elite involved, as soon as possible.

Bias then is likely to multiply massively, springing the second trap – pressure from ideologically sensible competitors. Finally TV would start to become balanced, the ravished carcass of the BBC would be flung into the pit of it’s ideological associates and the vibrant life-enhancing ideas of the  libertarian right can race Tories to the BBC’s former vantage point.