By Adam Tseng
At its heart, science is a beautiful process: observe something, develop a hypothesis, test it, analyze it, and share your results. This cycle has produced some of the most monumental discoveries, including Germ Theory, the Laws of Motion, and the airplane. However, this process has become increasingly riddled with error.
Nowadays, scientific research is increasingly driven by money. How else can laboratories and professors get the necessary supplies and students to continue experiments? Oftentimes, the need for money is so great that it trumps passion, and to get a payoff, scientists only need to finish research that yields important, or significant results. This leads to a lot of short studies with little substance and value to the community. Those studies are done simply to stay afloat. Meanwhile, larger projects that may take long periods of time to complete are discouraged, as funds normally dry up quickly. However, those large projects are the ones that tend to produce the most valuable and game-changing results. To keep those projects up and running, researchers are often faced with either aborting the study or turning to industrial corporations for financial aid, the latter of which can deeply bias the results in the corporation’s favor.
One of the most critical functions of the scientific community is peer review. After designing a study, researchers must submit it to an Institutional Review Board (IRB), a group of around five professionals who look over the study to make sure that it is safe and can be carried out.
Only after the IRB accepts the study can the researchers begin their work collecting data. In addition, after the results are collected, the work can be scrutinized by other professionals in the field for validity before it is published. Thus, the IRB and peer reviewers are the safeguard against deeply flawed study design and execution that will doom the study from start to finish. However, this process is broken. Because members of IRBs and peer reviewers are not paid, they have little incentive to review studies other than their passion for science. This leads to some reviewers procrastinating until the day before the deadline, when they hurriedly review the study. The resulting review is haphazard and often fails to detect major gaps in the research methods. While IRBs and peer review boards are designed to be impartial, bias and influences regularly leak into the boards’ decisions. Because IRB members and peer reviewers know whose work they are reviewing, they may unconsciously or intentionally leave hurtful or otherwise unhelpful comments that hamper rather than help the study.
Even after the study is completed, flaws still persist in sharing the results. In an effort to draw public attention, many universities will exaggerate their results. Sometimes scientists overhype their own work just to secure enough funds to run the next experiment and university press shops, eager to attract more publicity and sell more newspapers, often publish outlandish and unbacked claims. All of this inflation and distortion of results directly impacts the public and is responsible for why many lay people have little clue as to how science works and why it is important. This is because the truthful science that should be relayed down to them is caught up in the media and distorted to the point where it becomes nothing more than ludicrous hype.
How to Fix It
With so many problems plaguing science, what should we do? The first step would be to change how science is funded. Instead of purely rewarding results, funding sources should instead support researchers for a specific period of time. This will allow researchers to take greater risks with their work, knowing that for a certain time period, they will be covered by their funding source, whether it be a university or another organization. Reliance on corporations will also diminish, eliminating unwanted influence on scientific results. Funds can also be distributed to studies that are executed well, with truthful results, as those are worth more than studies with positive turnouts but questionable design. Finally, money should be set aside for replication studies that repeat a previous study to check for accuracy and credibility.
To fix peer-review, scientists suggest double-blinding the process. This means that the reviewers will not know whose research is being reviewed, eliminating negative bias towards the work. More broadly however, peer review should be opened up to the public and be done continuously. By putting studies online, where they can be viewed by a community of professionals, more opinions and suggestions can be made to the study design.
Finally, results sharing can be improved by changing the way journalists and scientists communicate science. Rather than only praising and publicizing studies with positive results, journalists must draw attention to studies conducted and designed well. Though it may not be as sensational, this can lead the public to think about science as a process rather than a result. Scientists must also strive to educate the public about their results without altering them in any way, making them interested in scientists’ work rather than just their flashy results. This will cause more people to think scientifically in their everyday lives, making for a more educated and progressive community that will support researchers in their endeavors.
Despite all of its flaws, modern science is not hopeless. It still protects us from disease outbreaks, makes advances in cancer research, and sends rovers to Mars. But by fixing the aforementioned major flaws, no matter how long it will take, scientists can create a better environment for truly revolutionary research.
500 Best Epidemiology images in 2020: Ap statistics, Data science, Statistics math. (2020, January 26). Retrieved from https://www.pinterest.com/wendynboys/epidemiology/
Belluz, J., Plumer, B., & Resnick, B. (2016, September 07). The 7 biggest problems facing science, according to 270 scientists. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/2016/7/14/12016710/science-challeges-research-funding-peer-review-process
Read "National Science Education Standards" at NAP.edu. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nap.edu/read/4962/chapter/4
Spicer, A., Roulet, T., & Novak Druce Research Fellow. (2020, February 05). Explainer: What is peer review? Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/explainer-what-is-peer-review-27797
University of Pittsburgh University Marketing Communications Webteam. (n.d.). Chapter 7 - IRB Committee Membership. Retrieved from https://www.irb.pitt.edu/content/chapter-7-irb-committee-membership
Science journalism. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://sortofscience.com/tag/science-journalism/