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Raising Scientific Experts

Competing interests threaten the scientific record, but courage and sound judgment can help

Nancy L. Jones

The Reality

2011-11EthicsJonesFB.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageIn fact, the scientific record serves other purposes besides advancing collective knowledge. As a result, highly charged ethical conundrums emerge throughout the publication process. Science is an interactive process conducted by humans who have their own aspirations and ambitions, which give rise to competing interests—some of which are listed in the figure at right. The inescapable conflict in science is each individual’s underlying self-interest and commitment to promoting his or her own ideas. Furthermore, authorship is the primary currency for professional standing. It is necessary for credence and promotion within one’s home institution and the scientific community, and is essential to securing research funds.

Indeed, the requirement that scientists obtain grants to support their research and salaries, coupled with funders’ accountability to the public for its investment in science, puts intense strain on the system. Increasingly, the publication record is used to weigh whether public funding for science is worthwhile. U.S. investment in science and technology has long been tied to the idea that science will give our society progress and improve our prosperity, health and security. That perspective was famously articulated in 1945 by Vannevar Bush, who was then director of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development, and it continues to shape funding for science today.

Although public investment in research has sped the progress of science, it has also placed scientific communities in an advocacy role. They are no longer just the guardians of knowledge; they compete for public resources and champion their specific fields. Their advocacy cases are often based heavily on promoting the potential outcomes of research—such as cures, solutions and new economic streams—rather than justifying support for the research itself. The scientific record is not immune to this pressure. Scientific societies that publish journals can be tempted to boost the prestige of their fields by prioritizing highly speculative, sexy articles and by egregiously overpromoting the potential impact of the research.

Such overpromising is particularly problematic because of the pervasiveness in our society of scientism and scientific optimism, which hold that scientific knowledge is truth. According to the philosophy of scientism, science is universal and above any cultural differences. It is immune to influences from an investigator’s psychological and social milieu or gender, and even to the scientific community’s own assumptions and politics. Under the influence of scientism, the public, media and policy makers can be tempted to apply research results without exercising the judgment needed to put them in context. Individuals who are deeply vested in scientific optimism can have difficulty seeing any potential harm as science “moves us toward utopia.” They may even become confused about science’s ability to make metaphysical claims about what life means.

But the epistemology of science (how science knows what it knows) cannot support these unreasonably optimistic conclusions. Scientific knowledge is tentative. It forms through an ongoing process of consensus making as the scientific community draws upon empirical evidence as well as its own assumptions and values. And scientific models—classification schemes, hypotheses, theories and laws—are conceptual inventions that can only represent our current best understanding of reality. Although these models are essential tools in science, we must continually remind ourselves, our students and the public that conceptual models are not reality. Nor is a research article—even a peer-reviewed publication—the truth.

Authors, reviewers and editors must take care to accurately communicate the kind of scientific knowledge addressed in any given publication, as well as its limitations. Authors should pay careful attention to inherent biases in their work and tone down overly optimistic conclusions. Reviewers and editors must correct any remaining inflation of the interpretations and conclusions. And scientific societies need to provide an adequate understanding of the process of science. They must convey levelheaded expectations about the speculative nature of any individual study and about the time and resources that will be needed to realize the public’s investment in a field of research. Otherwise, the continued projection of scientism—science is always progress—will erode trust in science at a much more fundamental level than will the few flaws and misconduct cases that surface in the scientific record itself.

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