contemplate the nature of scientific discovery
how it has transformed our worldview
If we could miraculously transport the smartest person from around 1900 to today’s world, they would be simply astonished at how we now understand things that had puzzled humans for centuries.
People had no idea how we inherit and pass on traits or how a single cell grow into an organization.
These days because of fundamental discoveries we can answer or at least begin to answer these mysteries.
That has transformed the way we see the world and often our everyday lives. Much of what we take for granted today is a result of an interplay of fundamental science and technology, with each driving the other forward.
Almost every modern invention has one or often many fundamental discoveries that make it possible. Sometimes, these fundamental discoveries were hundreds years old. Neither jet engines nor rockets would be impossible without a knowledge of Newton’s laws of motion.
There are big moments in science, like the discovery of the structure of DNA that shift our perspectives.
Which groundbreaking discovery was uncovered in your life time?
Give us the ability to figure out how things go wrong in genetic diseases and potentially how to fix them. Scientists were recently able to modify the genes of young girl to cure her cancer.
We are only just beginning to understand how our genes regulate the body and how they interact with our environment.
Science is the pursuit of knowledge about ourselves and the world around us. That pursuit of knowledge has also shaped the way we view the world. It has transformed our lives, generally for the better.
We live nearly twice as long as our ancestors did in 1900 and the quality of our lives is far better than it was then.
They depend on an interplay of cultural, economic and political factors.
They offer great potential in areas including healthcare and improving other public services, and may soon result in driverless cars and very sophisticated robots, but we need to make a conscious decisions about how we want smart machines to allow humanity to flourish.
Discoveries themselves are morally neutral, but the use we make of them are not.
One discovery that shifted our view of the world in two distinctly divergent directions was nuclear fission. Its discovery led to the development of the most destructive weapons known.
Some argue that the fear of destruction has been a powerful motivator for peace, but this is hardly a stable solution as can be seen with today’s situation.
Over the courses of ages, we have made countless discoveries that have improved the quality of our life and helped us understand the world around us.
the current approach favors low-risk research and proposals by older scientists and white men.
Is intended to fund work that spurs innovation and fosters research careers. In many ways, it may be failing.
Obtain grant support
Research funding increased only 0.8percent year to year. It has not kept with the rate of inflation.
A recent study suggests that the grant-making system may be unreliable in distinguishing between grants that are funded versus those that get nothing – its very purpose.
Submit a proposal
Grants are hard to write, take a lot of time, and require a lot of experience to obtain
After they are submitted, applications are sorted by topic areas
Applications are usually first reviewed by three members of study section and then scored on a number of domains from 1 to 9. The scores are averaged. Although the bottom half of applications will receive written comments and scores from reviewers, the applications are not discussed in the study section meetings. The top half are presented in the meeting by the reviewers, then the entire study section votes using the same nine-point scale. The grants are then ranked by scores, and the best are funded based on how much money is available.
Given that there are far more applications than can be funded,
If you are going to fund only a small percentage of proposals, you tend to favor the ones most likely to show positive results.
The current system favors experienced researchers over new ones.
The current system can also be biased against women and minorities in ways that could keep them out of funding range.
If researchers are getting into the top 10 percent more than others based on such factors, especially with less and less money available, many great proposals – and many great researchers- are being sidelined inappropriately.
We may be missing out on a lot of excellent, and perhaps novel, work that cannot break into the top 10 percent because of structural problems.
Academia has a huge money problem.
To do most any kind of research, scientists need money; to run studies, to subsidize lab equipment, to pay their assistants and even their own salaries.
Our respondents told us that getting –and sustaining –that funding is a perennial obstacle.
Their gripe is not just with the quantity, which in many fields, is shrinking. It is the way money was handed out that puts pressure on labs to publish a lot of papers, breeds conflicts of interest, and encourage scientists to overhype their work.
Academic researchers in the sciences generally cannot rely on university funding alone to pay for their salaries, assistants, and lab costs. Instead, they have to seek outside grants.
Grants also usually expire after three or so years, which pushes scientists away from long-term projects.
The biggest discoveries usually take decades to uncover and are unlikely to occur under short-term funding schemes.
Outside grants are also in increasingly short supply. In the US, the largest source of funding is the federal government, and that pool of money has been plateauing for years, while young scientists enter the workforce at a faster rate than older scientists retire.
Some of our respondents said that this vicious competition for funds can influence their work. Funding affects what we study, what we publish, the risk we take.
On the whole, truly unconventional papers tend to be less consistently cited in the literature. So scientists and funders increasingly shy away from them, preferring short-turnaround, safer papers.
Because you have to publish to keep your job and keep funding agencies happy, there are a lot of scientific papers out there with not much new science presented.
Studies have found that private industry –funded research tends to yield the conclusions which are more favorable to the sponsors.
All of this grant writing is a huge time suck, taking resources way from actual scientific work. He writes that many professors he knows spend 50% of their time writing grant proposals.
It is easy to see how these problems in funding kick off a vicious cycle. To be more competitive for grants, scientists have to have published work. To have published work, they need positive (statistically significant) results. That puts pressure on scientists to pick safe topics that will yield a publishable conclusion – or may bias their research toward significant results.
These problems are all exacerbated.
One straightforward way to ameliorate these problems would be for governments to simply increase the amount of money available for science. That would take some of the competitive pressure off researchers.