29 November 2005

The Appliance of Science

Being an engineer and a human (no, they are not mutually exclusive!), I have a healthy suspicion for science. I have blogged before on Science and Religion in the context of Faith vs Proof. However, during recent discussions with RocketBootWife, herself an ex-research-scientist, it transpires that the use of the word "Proof" as a byword for scientific endeavour is stretching it a bit. More than a bit, actually.

Scientific effort appears to be split into three fronts; high-energy physics (where they try and kill us with very small, strange things created when they bang very small things into other very small things at very high speeds), health research (Cancer, Heart disease, you know, useful stuff) and what I'll call "filler" science.

Filler Science is the kind of research that they might as well have not bothered doing. Its the stuff that populates the SciTech pages of news websites everywhere. Things like "Birds Fly South For Winter, new research shows" or "Men are Hairier than Women, scientists claim". But this sort of crap must be the bread and butter of thousands of scientists.

Science, from an outsider's perspective, seems a cutthroat world. Its a wonder more of them don't sport eye-patches or wooden legs. Their whole world is driven by funding and publications. And you only get to inhabit this world if you have stupid levels of qualifications in the first place. RocketBootBestMan has a DPhil from Oxford and he gets paid way less than me, despite being considerably more clever.

You're expected to work like a dog for peanuts (exucse the mixed metaphor) and crank out good results month after month. Reality dictates that you will go down blind alleys every so often, resulting in useless results. So what do scientists with crap results do with a poor publication level and a funding review looming? They make it up.

So they make the results look good and get them published. Their paper goes to the expert in the field who, in this case, laughs at it. The author then sends it to the next guy in the chain until it gets to some idiot who will ratify it. At this point, the chances of getting it published in Nature or The Lancet are slim, so they go with the BBC Good Food Magazine or some such.

This research is then used as the basis for some other scientists research. You would hope that these other scientists realise that any research published in the BBC Good Food Magazine is next to useless, unless it's "How To Make Chocolate Pudding To Die For", but I wouldn't bet my research grant on it. Again, you would hope that it doesn't require a PhD or millions in research cash to develop the perfect Chocolate Pudding recipe. It may be that scientific research is polarising; those who can get good results publish it and progress with their career, and those who can't publish Chocolate Pudding recipies and vanish into obscurity.

Publications are everything. You could be an ape-man from the wilds of Borneo, but as long as you've got good publications, you're set.

The whole system seems to be geared towards failure or mediocore, safe research. Or, it is geared towards weeding out the weak links; survival of the fittest. Only those who are good or sneaky enough to avoid any bad results can hope to make any money and generate useful research. It does however mean that probably only 5% of all scientific funding generates a good return.

Is it any wonder that the number of people doing hard science is dwindling? Scientific endeavour should be cooperative, not competitive. Sadly, as long as the majority of research is funded by large multinationals, Science will struggle to make significant advances. 1 step forward, 19 steps back.

PS Apologies to Zanussi for using their old tag "The Appliance of Science", but since they're now Zanussi/Electrolux, I doubt they'll care.

Proof: I faked my cell research, admits cloning pioneer.

See?! If he's doing it, imagine what lesser mortals are doing.

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