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Does science need its anti-establishment revolution, too?

'Drain the swamp' said President-elect Donald Trump, attacking the US governing elite. In France, the UK and Germany the same sentiments are rife. Establishments everywhere are having to justify themselves. How about shifting attention to the establishment in science?

An academic at the University of Newcastle has published a book that aligns itself delightfully with the prevailing anti establishment, anti-elite, anti-institutional atmosphere that currently dominates the Western world. We have had Trump. We have had Brexit. Next year, in France, we could have a populist - ‘far right’ - new president, Marine le Pen. Populist, anti-establishment parties are also expected to do well in Germany, which also faces an election next year. There is a lot of anger at elites and establishments at the moment.

We don’t know of course what President-Elect Trump is going to do, if his manifesto was just empty promises, but at least some of his popularity comes from his promise to “drain the swamp”. This self-proclaimed outsider (which he is, in Washington politics, at least) is going to purge Washington of the lobbyism, the backscratching, the cronyism and corruption. Make it more transparent. Well, as I said, we’ll see. His own genuine dedication to this is unclear – perhaps merely electioneering - and were he to do it, he’d face enormous vested interests. It is not quite clear what would replace it and whether it would be any better.

Thus American and European politics.

Does the field of science also need a Trumpean revolution?

I would guess most young scientists who want to go places aspire to attach themselves to a large institution, publish large numbers of papers in a cutting-edge field, go to loads of conferences and give talks at respected scientific societies. Be in the swim and be up-to-date.

Bruce Charlton, a reader (i.e. professor) in Evolutionary Psychiatry at the University of Newcastle, argues that most science published in the last generation is dishonest. He expands on it here. I guess he is writing a polemic. Not everything he writes may be true, but it is interesting enough to make you sit up and think and question the shibboleths of the profession. Anything that makes you think and question established realities has to be a good thing. He has boiled down the book to a series of ten points of very good advice for the aspiring young biologist. It probably goes for any science – indeed, perhaps any area of scholarly study, such as history.

Summarising the ten points even further, I would say that what Charlton is really saying is, faced with the flawed world of institutional science, the true scientist had better understand what to do and what attitudes to have in order to produce real science. What matters is the result. Some of the great philosophers and scientists of the past – e.g. Charles Darwin or David Hume – were not attached to a university. Amateurs were able to produce great things. With independent incomes, they were not distracted by teaching or administrative duties, nor office backstabbing or the requirements of modern political correctness. They were committed and had the leisure time and the freedom to think “outside the box”.

What about Big Science? For example, in Europe, the enormous funding boondoggles that used to be known as the Framework Programmes and now known as Horizon 2020? Billions of euros slosh around. To capture this funding, research teams across Europe compete with each other in a very formalised way. Metrics have been established that determine why one team and not another gets the funding. Do these metrics capture all true, good science? Or is it the teams that know their way around the system, belong to the right institution, say the right things and have the contacts that get the money? Does the constant need for new funding create an impetus for writing science papers that don’t say anything new or of significance? Never mind the quality, feel the width!

It is all very daunting for the idealistic young scientist.

So, says Charlton, in this post, if you are a true young scientist, you have to turn inwards and cultivate your own garden. It is sort of back to basics, but appealing at the same time. He writes in a blogpost:

Advice to a young biologist who wants to be a real scientist (rather than pursuing a successful career as a paid researcher and administrator) is summarised under ten points: 1. Be an amateur; 2. Read old books and papers; 3. Use your intuition; 4. Follow your nose; 5. Study what really interests you; 6. The timescale of real science is hours/ days or 7-year/ decade units; 7. Apprentice to a master; 8. Publish (only) when you wish to communicate, and (only) what you wish to communicate; 9. Publish (only) for those who are interested, honest and competent; 10. The validity of your work is primarily self-evaluated.”

What he's saying is that science is easy – you don’t need to attach yourself to a big institution and play the funding game (although what about equipment?). It is also incredibly hard, in that you have to be committed: eat, drink and sleep the ideas you are passionate about. The article itself explains more on this.

Anyway, it segues into the larger point: that, as for Big Science, doesn’t it need cleaning up, much like Big Oil, Big Pharma and Big Tobacco? Doesn’t someone need to, as Trump might put it, “drain the swamp” in this area also?

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