Tuesday, 24 April 2012

How grant chasing corrupts science


The middle twentieth century saw a golden age in medical breakthroughs in a context where only modest numbers (and percentages) of people did 'medical research'.

Whether in the hope that this progress could be continued, or simply from self-interestedly using past breakthroughs as leverage for increasing future resource, medical research funding was vastly exanded from the nineteen sixties - doubling about every decade.


Nowadays, 'medical research' - i.e. research justified by supposedly having medical relevance - is by far the biggest area of science. 

Scientists working in areas that were close to medicine began to re-orientate their research in order to justify applying for these sources of funding.


Basic biologists working in cell chemistry, immunology, genetics - began to argue that their work may have potential medical relevance.

It worked - since they are doing 'hard science' full-time they got funded in preference to the kind of part-time, intuitive, semi-researching clinical doctors who had made the earlier therapeutic breakthoughs.


Pretty soon 'may have potential relevance' in basic science was hyped into 'clinical importance' - and the mythology arose that medical breakthroughs came from basic science.

So, funding basic scince on the mistaken basis that it would lead to breakthroughs destroyed clinical research - not least becausse un-funded research no longer counted as research.


It also wrecked basic science, since it was shaped by a fake imperative to generate supposedly therapeutic benefits (science is so difficult that unless you do it as well as possible, aiming at the thing you are best able to achieve; then it doesn't happen - compromise is fatal.)


So funding ended up driving 'science' - which is not effective, nor is it science.

'Science' is evaluated by the funding it attracts; 'science' is done to get funding. 

And the whole thing worked by incrementally-increasing dishonesty - if you expand science by encouraging dishonesty, then pretty soon that's all you have - because it is a lot easier to be dishonest, than to do science.



dearieme said...

It's when grant applications were required to contain a timetable, laying out what you proposed to discover and when, that I decided that the whole business had become intellectually frivolous. But it certainly suits the unscrupulously ambitious - who therefore come to dominate the trade and its trade bodies. Thus the decline and fall of the Royal Society, I suppose. What a pity.

sykes.1 said...

Nearly all scientific fraud is committed in medical research, and the rest is committed in the biological sciences. You almost never see it in the physical sciences or mathematics. It's uncommon in engineering research.

dearieme said...

In mid career I was warned by an acquaintance not to work with a particular chap because he was a scientific croook: I told a second acquaintance who vigorously concurred. The chap in question ended up with a knighthood, a Fellowship of the RS and the Mastership of an Oxbridge College.

The striking thing is that this happened to me twice, about two different crooked chappies. Both were physical scientists not biologists.

I also learned of a separate crooked physical scientist when I was young, and a crooked psychologist. And there are a couple of engineering scientists about whom I have my doubts.

Bruce Charlton said...

@dearieme - that confirms my thesis in my next book which I am just revising at present.

It is called "Not even trying: the corruption of real science". I'll send you the revised draft if you want (although I may already have sent you the current version?)

An example from medicine is:



The Continental Op said...

In grad school (highly regarded US school) my advisor spent so much of his time chasing grants. This was engineering, where we like to do engineering things. I did not pursue a career in academia because I did not want to write proposals and schmooze NSF and DARPA for a living. I believe that at this school, faculty salary was, after a couple of years, entirely from a percentage of grant money pulled in. If you didn't get grants, you didn't make money. It was a commission sales job!

Bruce Charlton said...

@CO - yes indeed. It is hard to imagine a system more calculated to corrupt.

The same thing is described, for biology, in an interesting book called From Egg to Ego by Jonathan Slack.

But UK and European scientists are also thoroughly corrupted despite getting a salary direct from the university. They seem to be very easily intimidated - or perhaps they are so lacking in vocational motivation that there is nothing to intimidate - they will do whatever they are told to do - 'anything for a quiet life'...

dearieme said...
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Anonymous said...

Just found your blog and I like what I have read so far. I have an NIH clinical research grant right now and I do not disagree with what you have said. Something to add is that faculty salaries depend on grant funding. We have to report conflicts of interest when funded by pharma companies but somehow direct cashflow into our bank account corrupts not at all if it comes from a government institution. It is absurd when you think about it. This should be reported in every published study: "Cash was transferred from NIH to the lead authors' bank account pending positive results in this study." The positive results, of course, always come.