With the recently held rally “March for Science” on April 22, 2017 in Washington, DC, the Donald Trump administration must have felt pressure to concede to the demands of research scientists. The Trump administration received severe criticism for reversing climate change policies and reducing funding of academic research projects. In this article, the challenges facing research scientists in academia have been summarized as follows:
1) Reduction in government grants toward scientific research
Scientists need money for performing research studies. With Donald Trump mulling over a further reduction in financial grants toward scientific research, scientists would grapple with various issues as research projects are already struggling at various levels. However, research funding has been drying up over the last few decades. Most path-breaking research discoveries happen in projects that last over a decade, while grants allotted by serial governments in the USA last for just three to four years.
In such a scenario, scientists have to seek grants from external sources to cover lab costs, research assistant salaries, and to implement procedures. The funding received from universities covers only the salaries of scientists working on projects. The sources of external funding are limited and most researchers have to primarily depend on the federal grants provided by the US government.
As funding is getting limited, the process of grant approval is becoming stricter. In the year 2000, more than 30% NIH research proposals received federal grants. Today, the situation is grim with only 17% NIH research proposals receiving federal grants.
All this cost-cutting measures have led to dismal status: researchers shy away from unconventional subjects today and stick around to publishing short papers with a faster turnaround period. Thus, mediocre science is the current state of academia.
2) Conflict of interest from external sources
As the federal grants become highly competitive and meager, scientists turn to industries and commercial establishments for funding their research work. This ultimately leads to conflict of interest, with most reviewers questioning the authenticity of results. Scientists are compelled by these industries (FMCG, pharma, food, etc.) to produce results that favor the commercial prospects of the sponsoring agencies.
3) The study design of most experiments is biased, all thanks to poor incentives
Most research scientists are compelled to create study design of experiments and produce “novel” results, which will ensure the publication of work in prestigious journals. The “path-breaking discoveries” do not occur often, so scientists introduce bias early on in the experimental study design to embellish results. As they are pressurized to produce “significant results” for publication, scientists are helpless as they also need to save their research careers. Most scientists manipulate the analysis of results, rather than providing an honest assessment of their findings. For example, most biomedical researchers conduct extensive p-test to statistically analyze their results against other hypothesis. They only publish “statistically significant” results, which are easily achieved by this so-called “p-hacking”
Can you believe how poor incentives has jeopardized insignificant results? More than 30 percent of the so-called high quality medical research papers are now found to be containing exaggerated or wrong results. In monetary terms, this has translated to a wastage of $200 billion, that is, 85% of the money spent on scientific research globally.
4) Peer review process is faulty
Although most journals have peer review process to improve the quality of manuscripts and to prevent wrong studies from getting published, the process seems to be losing its sheen. As peer reviewers are NOT paid by the journals for providing constructive feedback of the manuscript, they do it under obligation. Thus, many systematic reviews have now found out that peer review is a faulty process: it fails to ensure that bad science is NOT published. Time and again, many manuscripts with faulty results and plagiarized content seem to have got published. As the editor and peer reviewers know the authors of the study but the authors do not know about the editors and peer reviewers, there could be instances of biases toward researchers from certain institutions and countries.
5) Scientific research is inaccessible to the public owing to high subscription prices of journals
Publishing a research study in a journal is not enough to disseminate science. Most journals are extremely costly as leading companies like Elsevier acquire numerous journals and sustain the print model for their vested interest. Most articles in journals can be accessed by readers at a hefty fee. For example, a yearly subscription to the Journal Cell costs around 279 $. If an educational institution subscribes to the 2000 Elsevier journal for a year, the cost would soar to anything between 10,000 $ to 20,000 $. Most US universities pay for these journals and their students can access it whenever they want; however, PhD scholars in developing countries like Iran need to shell out from their pocket, which means they would need at least 1000 $ a week for reading some novel research papers.
It is indeed a sad story that the common man’s tax returns are funding research studies at universities and government labs, but the common man has to again pay a hefty sum of money to access this work in scientific journals. Can you believe the annual revenue of Elsevier was pegged at around $3 billion in 2014?
Science is not yet doomed and there are methods for fixing these issues. The process needs to be modified to include more proofing and to mitigate biasing: this can be achieved by rectifying the peer review process and by ensuring better allocation of federal grants. With more federal grants being processed at regular intervals, scientists would be happier to pursue unconventional subjects. The tendency to suppress non-significant results would diminish, leading to better transparency. Thus, the more frequent sources of bias would be eliminated in academic publications and scientific research.