28 February 2012

Not every radical idea is right

ResearchBlogging.orgIt’s too hard to do groundbreaking science. Nicholson, who self identifies as a student (though what level is not clear), argues in forthcoming paper in BioEssays that the reason it’s hard to do original science is all because of how science is funded.

As it stands, our current system may work well in weeding out technically flawed proposals and advancing incremental work, yet truly novel ideas will rarely be funded or even tolerated.

This is not a particularly new insight. I’ve written about it from time to time; see here. I think we disagree on the value of incremental work, though. I think most scientific progress comes from incremental work, while Nicholson seems to think we get progress from “out of the box” thinking. Nicholson asks:

If, historically, most new ideas in science have been considered heretical by experts, does it make sense to rely upon experts to judge and fund new ideas?

It is true that some now accepted ideas in science were disputed at first, but Nicholson does not seem to consider that not every “novel idea” is ultimately vindicated. Case in point:

The emphasis on being liked by the scientific community as a prerequisite to survive as a practicing scientist subsequently limits critical exchange in science. This is the case with Peter Duesberg who went from a prestigious 7-year outstanding investigator grant from the NIH to grant-less ever since because he questioned the role of oncogenes in cancer and the role of HIV in AIDS.

You’re going to use HIV denial to build your case? Seriously? In a spectacular “own goal,” Nicholson inadvertently demonstrates exactly why funding agencies are conservative: because there are some people out there who have ideas that are just wrong. There are ideas that are not worth pursuing.

And I did a double take when I read this in the acknowledgements:

I thank Peter Duesberg (UC Berkeley) for useful comments and suggestions(.)

It might not be best form to use someone who gave you feedback on an article as an example of someone who’s been treated unfairly. This is in an article that complains about how “who you know” is contaminating science.

Nicholson says:

The novelty of an idea can be measured by how many ideas and people it contradicts.

Alas, the insanity of an idea can be measured in precisely the same way.

At the end of the article, Nicholson proposes a couple of ways out of dealing with fuddy-duddy old boys’s network of granting agencies. One is to incorporate more non-scientists into the review process. I might argue that we’ve seen some of the outcomes of non-scientists getting involved in the scientific process whenever we hear about politicians ragging on certain projects as “wasteful.”

Another solution, Nicholson argues, is crowdfunding. Having been involved in a crowdfunding project (SciFund), I’ve heard concerns that cranks will use crowdfunding to get money for their goofy projects. I think that crowdfunded research projects should have some form of peer review to keep out the crazies.


Nicholson J. 2012. Collegiality and careerism trump critical questions and bold new ideas: A student's perspective and solution. BioEssays: in press. DOI: 10.1002/bies.201200001


@pseudoknot said...

Crowdfunding bunk science can potentially lower public confidence in science as a whole, as well.

traumador said...

The real issue with using Duesberg as the example, in addition to his incorrect views, is that in advicing African policy makers (in South Africa in particular) Duesberg actually caused a lot of people to needlessly die due to "scientificially" supported inaction on HIV...

Ken Weiss said...

Crowd funding can be gamed like any other system and the people with large portfolios will quickly find ways to get around the system.

Any system that is too tough on quacks is going to be too tough allow real innovation. How to strike a balance is the challenge. We discuss this on our ecodevoevo.blogspot.com blog, though we have no magic answers. There probably are none.

How unfair and big-boyish the system is now is a matter for discussion. How to foster real innovation, which is by its very nature unusual, is the question.