The world has changed dramatically since Shakespeare’s death 400 years ago. That change is largely due to a method, the scientific method. It helps us find the objective streak in our subjective minds that Shakespeare so perceptively and vividly illustrated.
With this scientific method, any individual can find out the cause or explanation of any phenomenon or observation and convince another individual that it is valid, even if the two disagree on social, political, cultural, economic, or religious issues.
Therein lies the method’s power, the reason it has provided so much economic and life-style benefit to society, and why a career in science became mainstream and much sought after.
There used to be a time in the United States (prior to 1980s) when almost any competent scientist could sustain a career conducting research, as long as the subject was scientifically sound and interesting or useful.
People flocked to science lured by good prospects and the gratification of the most sublime of all biological traits, curiosity. They flocked in particular to the United States because it offered the most freedom, opportunities, and support for pursuing research projects of personal interest.
As a result, the number of scientists conducting research soared and scientific research in the United States entered a rapid growth phase, promising ever more benefits to individuals and society.
Then it became smothered by its own rapid growth. There was not enough money to support all the scientists who wanted to conduct research.
The natural impulse was to become selective. To come up with ways and means to identify the best scientists or projects and provide them with funds so that good science could continue. This impulse is used not only by funding agencies for reviewing grants but also by institutions for hiring scientists.
The result has been disastrous to most of scientists and unfortunately to science. Competition has become very intense for the few grant applications that are funded. The scientific research system is rendered extremely inefficient, wasteful, and subjective. And the end product of all scientific research activities, data, has been severely compromised.
There are two reasons for the disruptive result. One, the assumption that science would continue to be good or would become better when scientists compete for funding is too simplistic and, as argued here, wrong. Two, the current, traditional system is ill suited for handling today’s size and complexity of the scientific research enterprise.
To understand the problem with competition, first consider how it works in a system that is also vast and complex, life on Earth. Competition here is known to work best when (1) many want the same thing that is in limited supply (such as food or mates), (2) this thing directly impacts the ultimate purpose (such as survival or reproduction), and (3) the measures of performance used on individuals are universal, accurate, and effective all the time (such as longevity or fecundity).
Individuals of the same species that all basically do the same things easily meet those conditions. When competition among them is increased, individuals who do well survive and as a result the species and its niche flourish.
Now consider the situation for competition in the current, traditional system for scientific research: (1) many want funding that is in limited supply but their research projects are rarely about the same thing, (2) selection is applied to scientists, who only indirectly impact the ultimate purpose, i.e., research data, and (3) the measures of performance used on individual scientists and projects are more or less idiosyncratic, subjective, variable, changing over time, or based on predictions (and not assessments).
This situation is comparable to imposing competition on different species that basically do different things. Indeed, scientists more or less function as different species. Very few scientists, if any, would want to do what has been done or is being done by others!
Different species can be made to compete by limiting something they all depend upon, for example air or water. What happens then is that while some species flourish, others will die. When a species dies, its niche is vacated or ceases to exist. Thus, the ultimate consequence of competition among species is that many niches are emptied or become extinct.
That is basically what’s happening in the traditional system for scientific research. With only 10-20% of grant applications selected to receive funds, more than 75% of different research niches are already extinct or will be extinct soon. Gone with them will be all the research materials that are specific to these niches, opportunities for expanding our knowledge, clues for addressing new issues that arise, means for integrating the different fields, and the sources for creating new scientific and economic activities.
These are not just losses but also colossal wastes. So much money, talent, and effort have gone into developing the research niches that are extinct or going extinct. A similar amount would be wasted on rediscovering the same niches in the future and once again discarding most of them. Perhaps the biggest waste is the squandering away of additional benefits to society because research niches became extinct for non-scientific reasons.
Going back to life on Earth, its spectacular success is due to creation of new niches by the different species, and their integration to create even more niches. Competition for exploiting the same niche by individuals within a species has less to do with it. In fact, intense or prolonged competition, within a species or between species, eliminates diversity that could be useful when conditions change or for exploiting new niches. Besides, competition could result in undesired outcomes.
Consider the situation of extreme or persistent use of antibiotics or pesticides. Individuals that develop resistance are more likely to do so by breaking down the chemical applied or by finding loopholes within the system, in other words by beating the system. Rarely does it involve exploring or creating new niches that require a lot of time and collaboration at the level of molecule, cell, tissue, individual, population, or species.
It is no wonder then that the traditional system for scientific research that has become so competitive is beset with problems at different levels: problems in selecting scientists and projects for funding; problems in conducting research in the laboratory and institutions; and problems in generating data that are comprehensive and accurate. Making these problems worse are the antiquated methods and approaches that are currently used to promote, support, and manage scientific research activities and output.
Merely increasing funding, or restricting it to a smaller number of scientists, would only make the situation worse and squander the vast opportunity that the scientific method provides for making the research enterprise as vibrant as life on Earth. An entirely different system is needed for research.
Assured Science has developed a concept for scientific research that shifts competition from scientists to data. It is done in a way so that all data would be valued, robust, validated by other scientists, integrated with other data in the field, and well organized for easy access and study. Science would also become very vibrant because in this system there is no limit to the number of independent scientists conducting research.
Assured Science system is also designed using the best and most advanced methods and approaches available today. Working within this system, all scientists would be able to self-sustain their research projects, on their own terms, for as long as they want, on any subject matter, and produce far superior data most efficiently, avoiding all the funding, mechanism, and data problems normally encountered in the traditional system.
In effect, Assured Science is a self-sustaining data-generating enterprise that functions free of competition for funding or positions and without limits to the number or kinds of research projects that can be pursued. It enables not just scientists but also institutions, administrators, policy makers, and politicians to focus on nurturing science so that it progresses on its own merits rather than being subverted by the struggle for accessing or allocating funds.
Please visit www.assuredscience.org to learn more about the new system for scientific research, its founding, the problems undermining research in the traditional system, the principles and guidelines used in designing the new Assured Science concept, and how you could help develop this new concept into a fully operational research system.
The motto of the Assured Science organization is “More scientists and better science with less money.” Yes, it is possible, while also fully harnessing the power of the scientific method.
Thank you very much.