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Science born of perverse incentives

December 2019

Perverse: 'persistent in error'; 'different from what is reasonable or required'; 'perverted'; 'wicked' ... (Oxford English Dictionary)

A paper on 'Academic research in the 21st Century' describes how scientific progress and integrity are being adversely affected by the current climate of "perverse incentives" driving research.

For example, the yardstick for the most 'successful' scientist is the one who has published the greatest number of papers, and who has been awarded the most funding.

The outcome of this is an avalanche of substandard papers and short-term experiments. More care and attention is paid to writing grant proposals, in which positive results are oversold and negative results are downplayed, than on data quality. Research 'hot topics' generate a windfall in both potential papers and funding opportunities.

The pinnacle of the scientific profession is, of course, the Nobel prize.

The Nobel Prize was established in the last will of Alfred Nobel in 1895.

Alfred Nobel was a Swedish engineer, chemist and inventor, his most famous invention being dynamite. Nobel made his fortune from armaments factories, and in an erroneous press obituary (he hadn't actually died) he was branded a 'merchant of death'.

The first Nobel prizes were given out in 1901 for chemistry, peace, literature, physics and medicine; later 'medicine' was amended to 'physiology or medicine', and economics was added.

It has been described by one Nobel Prize winner as a 'lottery', 'beset by cronyism'.

There's nothing wrong with the recognition of achievement. However, there are no prizes for biologists researching the essential holistic aspects of life and its environment.

In the skewed, hypercompetitive, anti-cooperative climate of modern science, the Nobel prize winners are feted as infallible sages on all 'science', including topics way outside their expertise.

As astronomer royal, Martin Rees, points out 
"Even the best scientists have narrow expertise, and their opinions on general topics carry no special weight. It is possible to find a laureate to support almost any cause, however eccentric, and some exploit their status."
This mis-use of laureates' support has certainly been used by the GM lobby. A letter in support of GMOs, carefully rebranded as "precision agriculture" [1], instructed Nobel laureates that they should support GM and golden rice because:
  • GMOs are safe
  • GMOs are green
  • GMOs are especially important for small farmers.

Of the 137 signatories to these scientifically unjustified generalisations, 34% had won their prize in the 'medicine' category, 31% in 'chemistry', and 23% in 'physics', none of which are areas of expertise relevant to the risk assessment of GMOs in agriculture, the food-chain, or the environment.

The letter was also signed by more than 1,400 plant scientists in support of GM as a (reductionist) tool for producing more food with less environmental damage. These are scientists in the grip of the GM hot topic whose research is shaped by perverse incentives.

Scientists police themselves, but in a climate of perverse incentives, the scientific ethos is trampled on, and the 'science' they produce lacks credibility. Sadly, regulators who should be questioning the science have their own set of perverse incentives which add another layer of distortion of the truth and denial of the risks.
"An uncontrolled perverse incentive system can create a climate in which participants feel they must cheat to compete ... in science, the loss of altruistic actors and trust, and risk of direct harm to the public and the planet raise the dangers immeasurably". (Edwards & Roy)

OUR COMMENT

GM research is a hot topic, providing the results are positive. The subject of GM food safety desperately calls for long-term, holistic studies. Science driven by perverse incentives isn't going to give us the truth about the potential for harm from GM foods, even before commercial interests come into play. The credibility of, and our trust in, 'scientific' assurances are justifiably shattered.

It doesn't need to be this way. A start has been made in open access publications and data, and in public outreach. However, we've a long way to go.

There's no silver bullet, but a number of suggestions have been put forward, such as promoting scientists working in the public interest and raising awareness in students about the perverse incentives they'll have to deal with. An accredited peer review system at arm’s length from all vested interests and applicable to all industry science before it can be submitted to regulators is sorely needed. You could mention your distrust of science and scientists to regulators, and point out this need.


Background

[1] GOLDEN RICE: A NEW DEFINITION OF PRECISION - October 2018

SOURCES:
  • Marc A. Edwards and Siddhartha Roy, 2017, Academic Research in the 21st Century: Maintaining Scientific Integrity in a Climate of Perverse Incentives and Hypercompetition, Environmental Engineering Science 34:1
  • Laureates Letter Supporting Precision Agriculture GMOs), http://supportprecisionagriculture.org/nobel-laureate-gmo-letter_rjr.html, 29.06.16
  • Plant scientists sign petition in support of GM tools, http://feedstuffs.com, 19.02.16
  • Robin McKie, How myth of the lone Nobel-prize genius fails modern science, Observer, 30.09.18

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