Was America at its greatest scientifically when academics made far less money and were politically representative? Not if science output, Nobel prizes and adult science literacy are the measures, because America leads in all categories.
Yet with six figure incomes for faculty and less diversity has come greater distrust. Conservatives, for example, once had the highest trust in science, and now they are near the lowest, along with progressives. The public regularly thinks that anyone who cashes a paycheck is unethical, people don't trust medicine, food or energy science on the left and the right thinks climate scientists are shills.
Misconduct, sensationalism, frauds like Wakefield and Seralini, it has made all science look bad, and some scientists aggressively insist they be trusted without reservation even though the bias of academia is well documented. What to do?
The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands recently examined ways to return to high scientific standards and what can be done to better ensure research integrity. Will the public listen to insiders recommending what to do for their peers? Perhaps, if we believe a consortium of oil companies will solve global warming.
But people can at least be self aware, assuming the group was not recruited because they already held certain beliefs. Acknowledging and addressing the problems that exist at every level, from the notion that science is self-correcting to academia's incentive structures that encourage researchers to publish novel, positive results, can at least provide some hope.
The inability to replicate results, universities that want to make headlines exaggerate findings, and the media's quest for ratings and readership are not going away so easily.
"Science is littered with irreproducible results, even from top places, and it's a widespread problem that looks different in different domains, but there are shared commonalities," said Carnegie Mellon University's Stephen E. Fienberg, the Maurice Faulk University Professor of Statistics and Social Sciences. "As a statistician, I understand how the role of data is critical. But determining how to set a policy to support data access is very complicated -- there is not a simple set of rules."
And statisticians who deal in the social sciences know it better than anyone. Despite the fact that obsession with p-value is scientifically invalid, the social sciences fetish it when writing about their surveys.
The NAS and Annenberg group listed several ways to change incentives for quality and correction, including rewarding researchers for publishing high-quality work rather than publishing work more often; mentoring young peer-reviewers to increase clarity and quality of editorial responses during the journal publishing process; and using "voluntary withdrawal" and "withdrawal for cause" instead of the blanket "retraction" term, which has negative connotations that can prevent some researchers from taking action when a paper is wrong, but not as a result of fraud or misconduct.
Because ensuring scientific integrity is the responsibility of many stakeholders, the group recommends that the NAS call for an independent Scientific Integrity Advisory Board in 1992 should be revisited. The board's goal would be to address ethical issues in research conduct.
Additionally, universities should insist that their faculty and students are educated in research ethics; that their publications do not feature honorary or ghost authors; that public information officers avoid hype in publicizing findings; and suspect research is promptly and thoroughly investigated.
"Will Self-Correction Solve 'Trouble at the Lab?'" was published in the June 26 issue of Science. It was co-authored by Fienberg, Carnegie Mellon President Subra Suresh, the University of California, San Francisco's Bruce Alberts, NAS President Ralph J. Cicerone, Discovery Research's Alexander Kamb, Science's Marcia McNutt, Georgia Tech's Robert M. Nerem, the University of California, Berkley's Randy Schekman, Indiana University's Richard Shiffrin, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Victoria Stodden, MIT's Maria T. Zuber, Barbara Kline Pope of the NAS and Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.